The Al-Hurra hubbub is symbolic of a larger problem of how we perceive and practice our information activities (or propaganda if you wish, which is a pejorative only to Americans). While I have not yet watched the 60 Minutes piece, I did read Craig Whitlock’s Washington Post article and have some observations on the larger debate.
(On the CBS News/Pro Publica, see the BBG’s response here and a related 20 June 2008 PowerPoint here.)
The Al-Hurra shines a light on the transformation of American information activities from active and aggressive participants in the struggle for minds and wills to something much more passive, a beauty contest perhaps. This change, I argue, began happening even before “public diplomacy” was coined in 1965 as borders were established and, more importantly, we realized people actually listened to what we had to say.
Gone are the days when Edward R. Murrow could confidently state his staff could go up against any major media agency. Too often the emphasis is not on building trust and legitimacy with listeners but quick ratings and a resulting lack of editorial control and confused programming.
We must empower intelligently select editors and staff and empower them. Audiences come if the product is useful and interesting. Al-Jazeera English, for example, is useful and interesting. It is noteworthy that AJE is, I’m told, increasingly the news station of choice, displacing CNN, in one prominent government news agency. If you build it, they will come.
A while back I met and talked with Norm Pattiz and he was convinced that music attracted listeners. In other words, if they came for the music, they’ll stay for the news. But I believe there’s a reason Westwood One radio stations aren’t the template for international news agencies.
While we argue over the quality of programming, we cite a law that prevents us from monitoring, which in fact was intended to address the quality issue in the first place.
Dear Reader: my apologies if you had the misfortune of reading an earlier copy of this post.
2 thoughts on “Looking beyond Al-Hurra and into American Information Activities (updated)”
Reforming Smith-Mundt would be a start. Dismantling Al-Hurra and Radio Sawa would be even better. I feel as though the USG forgets (or perhaps is unaware) that the Arabic world has access to hundreds of quality satellite channels which provide far better entertainment and news coverage.Even IF Hurra and Sawa had had say, a modicum of effect in the Arabic world, it would have immediately been countered by the b-quality US programing that plays continuously on channels like the Middle East Broadcasting channel.
Trashy reality TV shows like “The Simple Life” (Paris Hilton at her best…the USA at it’s worst) or “Family Forensics” (where mock CSI teams snoop around in the underwear drawers of teenagers to find incriminating evidence for suspicious and deranged parents), are just a handful of American programs that play constantly in the Middle East.
This kind of programing also has a “mirror” effect and sadly, is much more influential than the whole of US Public Diplomacy efforts combined.
There are two major problems with the latest by CBS, ProPublica, the Washington Post and others.First, and most overlooked, you have theoretically responsible news organizations going “gee whiz and gotcha” over an alleged waste of taxpayer money because a US government financed broadcaster actually carries voices opposed to the USG point of view — something these news organizations should, in my view, commend because it shows an outfit like Hurra is NOT a pure propaganda outlet.
Second, these reports, by allegedly responsible news outlets, cause members of Congress and the like to scream “oh what a scandal” and demand stricter controls over what can be broadcast by a USG financed broadcaster — in other words, demands for censorship and propaganda.
Which is exactly the wrong message for a country which values a free press to send to the world.
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