The D.C. Socialite vs. 'The Grill Sergeant'

When the Pentagon tried to save its awful TV channel, it called in Washington's most infamous TV producer-turned-party-thrower.

Sgt. 1st Class Brad Turner was in his element. Standing in a supermarket, with a military band nearby, the man otherwise known as the "Grill Sergeant" was demonstrating how to make a tasty jambalaya. "There's no magical formula," he bellowed in his Southern twang, playing to the camera during an episode of his eponymous show. "If you don't have any good taste, then this is not going to work for you."

The Grill Sergeants was the cheeky cooking show with a clever name that was for years produced by the Pentagon. It brought cheers and jeers. But none of that mattered since the show was produced when times were good and defense money, like Turner's jambalaya, poured forth.

The Grill Sergeants, like many other TV programs produced by the U.S. Defense Department, is no more. And soon, the Defense Department's broadcast network -- the one that showed the Pentagon-approved cooking show -- may itself be part of military history. Budget cuts and fewer blank checks mean the Pentagon needs to rethink nice-to-have services that were once a given. And the Pentagon Channel, as the network is known, is likely on the brink of a major downsizing, Defense Department sources say.

"The Pentagon Channel is one of the few if not the only one where you can communicate directly to service members and their families," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. "That doesn't mean we can't find better ways of doing business."

A while back, there had been high hopes for the Pentagon Channel. Fancy, pearl-draped hopes.

Washington society mavens know Tammy Haddad as the bubbly party-thrower and socialite whose prominence peaks each spring for the celebrity-politico-and-journalist-laden brunch she holds before the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Haddad was recently highlighted in Mark Leibovich's This Town -- a book about the intersection of politics, power, and the media -- and was portrayed as part of the incestuous, schmooze-and-use culture of Washington. But at the Defense Department, she's also known for her work for the Pentagon's public affairs office, which contracted with Haddad, a former television producer, a couple of years back to consult on its media operations, including the department's internal broadcast network, the Pentagon Channel.

Only the advice didn't seem to pay off, for whatever reason, and now budget cuts mean her recommendations are "OBE" in military parlance -- overcome by events. According to defense officials, Haddad, a fundraiser, events organizer, and media consultant, was paid about $92,000 for an 11-month advisory project in which she acted as a "programming consultant" for the Pentagon Channel, whose shows were regularly evoking ridicule from Congress members and even some military folks. Haddad, a former television producer for CNN, NBC and other media organizations, is thought to have a keen eye when it comes to communications and production values. She was hired by the Pentagon's top public affairs office at the time, Doug Wilson, "to provide expert advice and recommendations" on how to modernize and expand the Pentagon Channel's programming, according to a Defense Department spokesman. She worked as a consultant for the Pentagon officially between October 2010 and September 2011.

Haddad had grand plans for the channel, making recommendations to infuse it with more sophistication and cool in an attempt to appeal to young and older audiences alike -- a mix of VH1 and the History Channel.

Haddad was vague on the changes she actually recommended, citing the time that has elapsed since she worked on the project. But she told Foreign Policy she recommended a variety of "production changes" and provided programming and distribution advice, some of which she thinks the Pentagon agreed to implement. "I looked at how they did all their different shows, who did them, and how to create a variety of programming," Haddad told FP. "Also, how do you talk to your own people, the military; how do you talk to the world; and how do you use your best talent to deliver your programming?" she said.

But it's unclear her advice took the Pentagon Channel to new highs. In fact, the channel seemed already in decline when Haddad arrived to do her 11-month-long analysis.

[UPDATE: Doug Wilson writes to FP that Haddad was hired to do an in-depth analysis of the Channel because even at the time, the "handwriting was on the wall" with regard to shrinking resources and her professional qualifications as a former TV producer for MSNBC, NBC, Fox and CNN - bringing 'Larry King Live' to that network in 1985, for example, gave her the kind of critical eye the Channel needed. "Tammy Haddad was not hired because of the events she organizes or who she does or doesn’t invite to them.  To state or allege otherwise is simply wrong.  We hired her because of her proven experience and expertise in television management and production in broadcast, network and cable," he wrote in a note to FP after this story first ran Friday.  "Tammy did what we asked her to do.    She looked at the Pentagon Channel overall and at all of the various programs – how they were developed, what the purpose was for each program.   She focused on whether the Pentagon Channel could continue to be a vehicle to reach military audiences most effectively at a time of media and Internet proliferation and competition – and, if so, how."]

In addition to The Grill Sergeants, the Pentagon Channel at one time had all kinds of fare, including Fit for Duty, Armed Forces Boxing, and the euphemistically titled FNG, described as a 30-minute lifestyle show about travel and electronics "For the New Guy." But many of those shows either had been canceled or were poised to be when Haddad arrived. Today they are gone and, like bad episodes of Married with Children, only live in the universe of the rerun. Today, the Pentagon Channel's only current programming includes news, military briefings, and a handful of other specialized programs for troops, including some on suicide prevention.

The Pentagon Channel is different from American Forces Network (AFN), which is the primary way through which the Pentagon connects to troops, especially those serving in isolated areas overseas. AFN has a more must-see quality, broadcasting sports events, first-run movies, and news programming from CNN, Fox, and others. There are no plans to significantly change AFN.

The Pentagon Channel, on the other hand, was conceived as a way to get information to military audiences across the United States and beyond. But now that audience uses the Internet, social media, and other forms of communication to get a lot of the news and programming they need. And for an audience straddling multiple time zones, broadcasting a single channel around the clock may seem too old school.

The Pentagon Channel falls under the Pentagon's Defense Media Activity (DMA), which also includes news publications like Stars and Stripes and magazines for individual services -- Airman, Marines, Soldiers, and the Navy's All Hands. Many of those products, however, are a throwback to a different time, when service members and other interested parties got their news and reading entertainment from ink and paper. But changes in the media environment are forcing the Pentagon to look more broadly at a lot of those kinds of information products. Troops, like other news consumers, want information and other programming that's more in real time and on demand. Although the Pentagon Channel's future is still under review, the Pentagon is thinking about changing the channel into a completely web-based product in the future, standardizing its format, and streamlining some of its programming.

A few things are driving change at the channel. Both the fiscal environment and the media environment have morphed considerably, defense officials said; there are fewer discretionary dollars to be spent on nice-to-haves. And obvious changes to technology and the media environment mean the value of an internal broadcast channel is less than what it was. Ray Shepherd, the new director of the Pentagon's DMA, has been charged with doing a top-to-bottom review of the directorate, including giving a special look at the channel.

And there's money to be saved too. The Pentagon Channel is played on about 370 cable stations around the United States, but those companies include it for free in their programming, at no cost to the government. Sending the signal to satellites around the world, however, costs the Pentagon about $2.3 million per year. Yet it could move to a more standardized broadcast format and reduce that cost dramatically, to $700,000 per year, a defense official said. The overall costs of the channel are about $5 million per year. "We think there are ways, if you move to the more on-demand, podcasting kinds of models, there will be savings to be achieved there too," said Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman.

Any cuts to the Pentagon Channel's operations won't likely face too much criticism on Capitol Hill. The Grill Sergeants, in fact, had become a poster child for wasteful spending after it was highlighted in a report titled "Department of Everything," by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And Haddad's hope to give the Pentagon Channel a little more sizzle seems to have burned out.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Princess of Reform

Why the daughter of Malaysia’s opposition leader embodies the hopes of the democratic reform movement.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia  Last month, a young opposition member of Malaysia's Parliament, Nurul Izzah Anwar, was scheduled to speak at a university forum on the country's impending general election. You'd think that that wouldn't have been a problem: Malaysia's rulers, after all, routinely portray their country as a thriving democracy. 

In this case, though, the guardians of democracy weren't having any of it. Anonymous officials quickly intervened, pressuring the university to pull the panel and replace its members with speakers less inclined to criticize the government. But Nurul Izzah refused to leave it at that. She attended the event as a member of the audience, and then used the question-and-answer period to speak her mind. 

Nurul Izzah is used to fighting the odds. At the age of 32, she's spent a lifetime battling the powers-that-be. And now, as Malaysia embarks on a watershed national vote on May 5, she finds herself at the center of a vicious battle to defend her seat. The ruling party is pulling out all the stops to defeat her. But the question remains: Why would this mother of two pose such a threat? 

Nurul Izzah became an opposition member of Malaysia's parliament in 2008 after winning in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income Kuala Lumpur suburb where she plans to run again. How she fares in the coming election will mirror Malaysia's political journey from a one-party system, sustained by sectarian politics and ethnic patronage, to a competitive, multiethnic, and egalitarian polity. The People's Pact, an opposition coalition led by Nurul's father, the 64-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, is up against the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN), which has ruled Malaysia for the past 56 years. BN is dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a party that serves as a political vehicle for the ethnic Malays who make up over half of the country's population. (Malaysia also boasts strong Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, both groups that are represented especially heavily in Anwar's coalition.) 

Cracking the dominance of BN won't be easy. During his four years in office, the current prime minister and BN leader, Najib Razak, has presided over strong economic growth (5.6 percent last year) and has attempted to placate discontent by implementing a few modest liberalizing reforms. But the biggest challenge facing the opposition is BN's deeply-rooted control over Malaysia's most important institutions, from the mainstream media to the national election commission. In the run-up to the national election, indeed, Nurul has seen fit to file a claim with the commission alleging tampering with the voter lists for her constituency. One of her party workers was also recently beaten up by unknown assailants. 

Despite these obstacles, however, she does have some powerful advantages on her side. An articulate and charismatic speaker, the U.S.-educated (and confessed Radiohead fan) Nurul Izzah has considerable appeal among the educated and globalized elements within her country's remarkably diverse society. (After getting her undergraduate degree at a leading private university in Malaysia, she earned an MA at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.) As a headscarf-wearing Muslim, she combines her cosmopolitan credentials with both a sense of religious propriety and decorum that has put her in good stead with the staunchly conservative ethnic Malay society. 

She also enjoys excellent name recognition, thanks to the long political saga of her father. Anwar Ibrahim lost his position as deputy prime minister in September 1998 in a showdown against Malaysia's long-entrenched prime minister and political strongman, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Placed under arrest, Anwar was beaten while in police custody, and then charged with sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) and corruption. He spent the next six years in prison, and in 2004 was acquitted on the charge of sodomy and released. But the "sodomite" label stuck. Mahathir used it to justify Anwar's inability to be a leader, and today supporters of the BN government still use it to demonize the People's Pact. 

The resulting political storm was a trauma for then-18-year-old Nurul Izzah, but it also gave her a formidable education in politics. She traveled the globe campaigning for her father's cause, speaking at international forums and hobnobbing with world leaders. "I did really think he would be freed," she told me. "You just had to believe it in order to keep going." Her mother, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (now 60), remained behind in Malaysia with her five younger children. Nurul Izzah's efforts earned her the nickname Puteri Reformasi, "Princess of Reform." 

Her critics say that Nurul Izzah owes her rise to her father's fame, and that is, to some extent, true. But her work for the past five years in Parliament as part of Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR) has shown that there's more to her success than a fortunate name. In the March 2008 national election, following a groundswell of public ire over widespread corruption and perceptions of pro-Malay ethnic bias by the government, Nurul Izzah and other People's Pact candidates rode the crest of a political tsunami that had gathered under years of stifling one-party rule. But among that host of political neophytes, she has stood out as one of the very few who can claim true future prime ministerial potential. Following the election, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, winning only 51 percent of the popular vote. Opposition parties won 5 out of 13 state governments. 

Malaysian politics has been in overdrive ever since, with voters trooping off to the polls for 16 by-elections prompted by deaths and resignations among legislators. Unfortunately, the constant politicking over the last five years has allowed communal politics to rear its ugly head, with ethnically motivated demagogues striving to capitalize on every potential political situation. Such incidents have included a group of Muslims stomping on a cow's head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple, hysterical claims that Malaysia is on the verge of adopting Christianity as the national religion, and, more recently, calls to burn Malay-language Bibles. 

The western press often describes Malaysia as a "model moderate Muslim country." But ethnicity and religion remain powerful forces in politics here. The most controversial policies are those that retain affirmative action privileges for Malays, who form a majority population but are economically disadvantaged. Religion adds to the volatility because the Malaysian constitution defines Malays as Muslims, causing Islamic agendas to be often conflated with political and civil liberty issues. Anwar's People's Pact has promised to replace long-established affirmative action programs with needs-based policies. That's a popular line with Malaysians citizens of Chinese and Indian descent, but it's a harder sell among the ethnic Malays who have long benefited from government-safeguarded benefits. Anwar will win only if he and his fellow oppositionists can pull off a tricky political balancing act. 

Like her father, Nurul Izzah is both Malay and Muslim -- but she has built her political career by appealing for a more open definition of both. She frequently cites the Muslim reformist scholar Tariq Ramadan, who argues that Islam must embrace multiculturalism. Such ideals, however, have yet to gain mass appeal. When in 2010 Nurul Izzah called for a reassessment of Malay-Muslim dominance in favor of pluralism, she ruffled the feathers of a few elders within her own party. "They were afraid I would make the PKR lose support among the Malays," she says. 

That shows just how entrenched ethnicity remains within the Malaysian political psyche. Even the opposition parties of the People's Pact coalition (with the exception of Nurul's own PKR) are dominated by a single ethnic group. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) admits all ethnicities but is run by a Chinese core with a socialist bent, while the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is exclusively for Muslims. Given the ideological polarity, it has been no mean feat for the three parties to stay together. The PKR under Anwar's leadership is regarded as the lead opposition party that keeps the coalition intact -- and whoever inherits his mantle must continue this dicey task. If Nurul Izzah is to rise higher in her party and in the coalition, she will need to take a position on Islam that the PAS can swallow. 

As a result, she's hedged her bets by building links to her father's old grassroots network of Islamic revivalists, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (Abim). Anwar, who got his start as a student activist, was serving as the group's president when Mahathir spotted his talent and brought him in to the UMNO. (It's not clear whether Mahathir saw the young Anwar as a potential successor or as a future rival to be contained.) In 1998, Abim lent its support to Anwar during his incarceration. 

Nurul Izzah cultivates allies with influential Muslim groups as a strategy to keep Malaysia on the middle path. "They [Abim] understand the need to expand democratic space, [and that] the struggle for only one race or one religion is un-Islamic. We have to keep engaging Abim so that we will always share these ideals," she says. "As it is, even for Muslims now, there is little room for free discourse. We attempt inter-religious dialogue but officers from the government religious department won't attend because they think pluralism is a threat to Islam. We have to keep enlarging the space so that things can be different." 

Underscoring the difficulty of widening democratic space among Malaysian Muslims, she was severely panned by critics in November 2012 when she remarked at a public forum that Malay Muslims ought to enjoy the freedom of religion just as other ethnic groups do. (Malaysian laws penalize Muslims who leave Islam with rehabilitation, jail, or fines.) It is still difficult to openly discuss certain personal freedoms like religion and sexuality in conservative Malaysia without repercussions. 

Yet even as she has worked to make Malaysian politics more issue-driven, her success in the coming election is likely to depend on the gritty details of everyday politics. Her resources for wooing voters are nowhere near those of her likely opponent, Raja Nong Chik Zainal Abidin, who as the current federal minister in charge of urban development has plenty of patronage to dispense. Nurul Izzah claims that he has already used this position to his advantage, since his federal portfolio gives him considerable power over infrastructure and services in Nurul's constituency that especially affect lower-income voters. 

This mirrors the broader approach of the Najib government, which has been busily dispensing electoral goodies to voters at a pace that's probably equivalent to a major economic stimulus program. The BN has offered cash payouts to low-income households and smart phone rebates to young people, and stepped up an affordable housing scheme aimed at college graduates and young adults. That the BN is targeting the youth vote is no surprise, since they form the majority of new voters. 

Then there's the issue of electoral manipulation. Over 15,000 new voters have appeared on the electoral roll in her constituency since the poll in 2008. The Election Commission has said that the additions are newly registered voters, but Nurul Izzah believes the spike is a deliberate attempt to use "ghost voters" to water down chances of her reelection. (Her margin of victory in 2008 was a mere 2,895 votes.) 

Nurul Izzah isn't the only one with suspicions. According to official figures, the number of voters on the national roster has increased by 2.4 million (some 18 percent) since 2008. (The government attributes this dramatic rise to its own voter registration drive.) A year ago, the last street demonstration by the Bersih reform movement, which has been marshaling popular support for clean elections, urged the commission to weed out irregularities in the electoral roll and to improve election procedures. The peaceful rally, which drew up to 80,000 protestors, turned violent when police allegedly began beating and harassing journalists. One hope this time around is that the ubiquity of social media, which is now widely accessible to most Malaysians, can boost transparency by offering an alternative to traditional media dominated by the government.  

But not everything is working out the way the government wants. A court last year overturned the home minister's declaration that Bersih was an illegal organization. In February, critics assailed the deportation of an Australian senator, Nick Xenophon, who was in Malaysia as part of a fact-finding mission on election processes. An official inquiry is under way into an alleged citizenship-for-votes scheme during the Mahathir era which is also chipping away at the credibility of the BN administration. 

The national race is still too close to call. While senior opposition leaders are confident of wresting federal power away from Najib and his ilk, observers say the Pact could narrow its margin with the BN. When Nurul Izzah ran in the 2008 election, she beat her formidable opponent, a third-term incumbent and a top leader in UMNO. It was a win that said more about public sentiment towards the BN than Nurul Izzah's political capabilities at the time. But she has proved her worth. She ran in the 2010 internal party elections and ended up with one of the highest vote totals in the race -- though she claims she found evidence that some of her rivals of engaging in dirty tricks. There are some within the party who are already maneuvering to succeed Anwar as leader, and that is likely to mean plenty of challenges for her as well. 

The coming election in May will determine Nurul Izzah's future in politics. It may also decide whether the ideal she represents -- the establishment of a truly democratic multiethnic society -- will ever have the chance to take root.