MELBOURNE, Fla. -- With little fanfare, Harris Corp., the giant government information technology and defense contractor, has developed a new niche -- media -- in a place many view as a bit odd.
In January 2004, the Melbourne-based company took charge of the Iraqi Media Network, landing a $96 million U.S. government contract to equip, rebuild, operate, program and manage the war-torn country's fledgling media network.
Nearly a year and a great deal of controversy later, many media observers are wondering why Harris, which specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing communications equipment and infrastructure, was chosen by the federal government to run a media corporation in a foreign country.
Some might argue the long-standing ethical wedge separating media and government precluded any U.S. media conglomerates from going after the contract, thus forcing the U.S. government to rely on its battery of blue-chip defense contractors to operate the Iraqi Media Network.
Others suggest simple politics may be the reason.
According to campaign contribution records, Harris is a big Republican supporter. During the 2004 election cycle, for example, Harris donated $263,570 to GOP political action committees and candidates, versus a mere $8,200 to Democratic candidates or causes.
In 2000 -- President Clinton's last year -- Harris had won $265 million in prime contracts. By the end of 2003, prime contracting had nearly doubled, reaching $517 million at Harris.
In fact, for fiscal 2003, Harris received $1.47 billion in total U.S. prime contract and subcontract government work -- fully 70 percent of the company's annual revenue.
"You could see how the government would write a contract that would be more easily won by a technology and equipment company than a media company," explains Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Tampa-based Poynter Institute. "But, it doesn't make a lot of sense for a tech company to be running a media network."
On the contrary, Harris spokesman Tom Hausman insisted in an interview with Orlando Business Journal in August Harris was the right company for the contract.
"Harris is very experienced in large communications integration projects. We've done significant projects worldwide. We know broadcast equipment and how to integrate it," said Hausman, who in subsequent interviews declined to add to his earlier comments.
Sherrie Gossett, associate editor for Accuracy in Media, a Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog publication, believes the government's reliance on known defense contractors is no mistake.
"The primary goal of the U.S. government's media expansion in Iraq always has been a military and political one: to quell unrest, win the minds of the people and combat anti-American propaganda from other sources," says Gossett.
"The fact that the U.S. started the job with a defense contractor ... and then chose Harris -- a media technology company with no journalism experience -- underscores those priorities."
From the word go, the Iraqi Media Network and the U.S. government contract to run it have been a source of contention for federal officials.
Modeled on the British Broadcasting Corp., the Iraqi Media Network includes a radio network; the Al-Iraqiya television network, which includes the news channel Al-Hurra; and the Al-Sabah newspaper.
The original network contract -- which encompassed eight contracts totaling $108.2 million -- was given to San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. in March 2003 by the Defense Contracting Command-Washington on behalf of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, which later became the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Almost immediately, there were problems.
First, SAIC, a technology research and engineering firm and U.S. defense contractor, had virtually no prior media experience. This, along with the fact that the network is funded by the U.S. government, brought about complaints that content was biased.
Then, there were issues with the contract process. SAIC's contracts were issued on a sole-source basis. In fact, the Defense Contracting Command had no competitive bidding process in place when it awarded its initial 24 Iraq contracts.
"The process of awarding government contracts has a number of flaws ... and the process itself is political," explains Steve Weiss, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "It doesn't necessarily result in the best company getting the contract all of the time."
The re-awarding of the contract to Harris was supposed to quell these issues. The reason: Harris assembled a team of Middle Eastern media firms to run the media side of the network.
While Harris has been installing the infrastructure, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. International has been training media personalities and programming the radio and television networks.
Al Fawares, a Kuwaiti-Iraqi publishing and telecommunications company, has been operating and managing the Al-Sabah newspaper.
Plus, Hausman indicated, Harris has prior experience working with international media networks. In 2002, the company won the $60 million contract to upgrade Romania's television and media network.
Still, even under the Harris triumvirate, there have been problems.
Criticism remains of the pro-United States content on the Iraqi airwaves and in its newsprint.
Further, members of the Iraqi media do not seem to like working for Harris or its partners. In May, the staff of the Al-Sabah newspaper walked out, and last month, Jalal al-Mashta, general director of the Al-Iraqiya television network, resigned from his post after just six months on the job.
The problems are not surprising, says Poynter's McBride.
"If journalism is going to have any value, it is going to have to have credibility," says McBride. "Right now, the U.S. government has zero credibility in Iraq, and anything it touches, including the media, is going to have a credibility problem."
The solution some media watchdogs believe is to bring in international journalism experts or non-governmental organizations, such as Media and Democracy and Democracy Watch, to help the Iraqis have a truly free media.
"A free press is not created by sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure and government fiat," says Gossett with Accuracy in Media. "It's clear in the chaos of the current Iraq, a free press is not a priority."