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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots

image “American Public Diplomacy wears combat boots” is the opening sentence in my forthcoming chapter (written last year)in the yet to be released Public Diplomacy Handbook, co-edited by Nancy Snow and Phil Taylor.  Recent “revelations” have reinforced this point and highlight a systemic problem with how the State and Defense Departments can and do approach information activities.  And no, this isn’t about Barstow’s Hidden Hand.

The USA Today’s Peter Eisler wrote about several Defense Department news sites that have been up for a while.  Triggering this appears to be that CENTCOM has finally joined EUCOM and AFRICOM in sponsoring targeted news services in the languages of the target geography.  Other commands will follow suit as part of the Trans-Regional Web Initiative

Despite the protests of some, which I’ll get into below, this is neither illegal or unethical.  It is, however, indicative of a greater systemic problem within the U.S. government problem. 

In the past, as requirements dictated, a radio station, newspaper, or language service to enhance an existing outlet was stood up when a new audience needed to be included (or USIA personnel were tasked for what is seemingly now a quaint notion of a human interface).  Back in the day when there was a real ideological / information war going on (i.e. before detente), this was done through various radio services, USIA and, in some way part, the State Department. 

These sites are (likely) run from as Public Affairs functions and are thus dedicated to “news” and “facts”.  There may be, and hopefully is, input from the Information Operations folks to help narratives, which Eisler indicates is happening through the request and selection of articles to be posted.  The sites focus on themes — “promoting democracy, security, good government and the rule of law” — and do little on the creation of narratives, which is most obviously done through the editorial pages, which these sites do not have. 

Today, as this blog has oft, and not singularly, said, State’s inability, or limited ability, to participate in the war of information creates a void the Defense Department has been forced to fill.  This isn’t just an issue of resources, but the result of bureaucratic culture and structure limits.  In State, the Public Affairs mandate is to “help Americans understand the importance of foreign affairs”, thus making Public Diplomacy own such an effort.  Both State’s Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy are under a singular individual, who yet to be confirmed.  What about the Broadcasting Board of Governors?  Hardly.  RFE/RL?  No, for a variety of good reasons, they’re not configured to snap-on new services or to do so in this manner.  No, USIA used to provide this capability to the U.S., but no longer.  In the absence to counter misinformation and overt propaganda, truth news services are going online by Defense. 

The criticism the USA Today article is based on the provenance of these sites.  The transparent concerns are mired in concerns that Defense is sponsoring these sites more than anything. 

Journalism groups say the sites are deceptive and easily could be mistaken for independent news.

“This is about trying to control the message, either by bypassing the media or putting your version of the message out before others (and) … there’s a heavy responsibility to let people know where you’re coming from,” says Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. A disclosure on a separate page “isn’t something most people coming to the site are likely to see.”

Ms. Mitchell’s issue hinges on her first point.  The media’s fear that they’ll be bypassed and not have the ability to control a message is deep.  It is, to her, the traditional media’s responsibility to disseminate its version of the news.  Is it clear where Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty or Fox News is “coming from” without a history of reading?  Where is the About page indicating the mission of Fox News anyway?

As for the other criticism,  

The websites suggest a pattern of Pentagon efforts to promote its agenda by disseminating information through what appear to be independent outlets, says Marvin Kalb, a fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

I’m not exactly sure what the Pentagon’s agenda is, but this does suggest a pattern that of needs that are not being fulfilled by any other organization, needs that used to be addressed by an ability the United States, through a variety of machinations, deemed unnecessary. 

My criticism of the sites is that they aren’t focused enough.  Sites that support multiple languages for multiple audiences frequently, as they should, re-order (emphasize & de-emphasize) the information as the audiences likely have different interests and priorities.  For example, look at how the headlines change at the French Foreign Ministry’s website based on the selected language (language options — French, English, German, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese — are available in the top-left of the page). 

As the military further entrenches itself as our public diplomats, despite its protests,  and an increasing number of the world’s population shapes their opinion of the United States through the actions of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Secretaries of Defense in new and traditional media,  it makes sense that they would sponsor news services.  They shouldn’t, and they’ll probably be the first to admit it, but who else will do it? 

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