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American Public Diplomacy Efforts in the Middle East: the Disconnect Between Messenger and Audience

Nichole J. Allem
Syracuse University, S.I. Newhouse School Of Public Communications

 

ABSTRACT

American foreign policy and public diplomacy efforts have thus far been ineffective in the Middle East. Public diplomacy, which may be defined as informing, engaging, and influencing foreign publics in support of a country’s national interests,[1] has frequently been utilized in an effort to engage and persuade the Arab and Muslim publics. Scholars, government officials, and members of the media are wondering if public diplomacy can alleviate negative perceptions of America in the Middle East. This work focuses on the reasons behind the inability of recent American public diplomacy broadcasting outlets, such as the now-defunct Voice of America-Arabic, Al-Hurra TV, and Radio Sawa, to establish credibility with its audience. Cultural and religious underpinnings will serve as the framework to explain how the communication efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of a Middle Eastern public essentially failed in a post-9/11 world.

BACKGROUND OF ISSUE

Mark Leonard, Catherine Stead, and Conrad Smewing spent two years researching Britain, France, Germany, and the United States to determine how these nations conduct public diplomacy. [2] Evidence from interviews with senior policy makers, representing their home countries in various organizations abroad, led the researchers to argue for a restructuring of public diplomacy communication efforts. The conclusion was that governments must change the tone of public diplomacy from being less about winning arguments and more about focusing on engagement. The symmetrical (two-way) conversation is a basic tenet of public diplomacy. Thus, the researchers proposed that public diplomacy efforts must be more interactive. This can be achieved through building long-term relationships and striving to understand target audiences, as opposed to delivering one-way messages in an attempt to “win over” an audience.

Strategic communications is an effective method to both engage and persuade an audience. Engagement with cultures or communities different from that of the communicator is often a challenge, and the prudent communicator will attempt to widen his or her cultural lens. Stanton Burnett, the former director of studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed to the long-term strategic benefits of seeking to understand another culture, noting that one must make this attempt through information seeking, analysis, and insight sought from “all of the relevant sources contributing to an understanding of human interaction”.[3] He explained that a key source of these is spiritual or religious belief. Burnett predicted that the inability to understand the spiritual and religious factors in human interaction would lead to failure for public diplomats interested in conflict resolution, arguing that the character of a conflict is misunderstood when religion is not taken into account, even if the conflict is not rooted in religion.[4] As former CBS News Middle East correspondent Lawrence Pintak remarks, “The concept of worldview is anchored in religion.”[5]

The infusion of cultural sensitivity and religious understanding into American foreign policy is crucial. In a post-9/11 world, many American policymakers fear one of the main problems between the U.S. and the Middle East is lack of information. As Leonard, Stead, and Smewing explained: “If only other people had access to the same degree of information that we have, and the same degree of insight, then they would agree with us.”[6] But the crude tactics used to propagate information, such as “leaflet bombs” depicting a member of the Taliban beating women or dropping single-channel radios tuned to Voice of America on target publics in the Middle East, are the tactics of old public diplomacy and can no longer be tolerated as effective methods of promoting understanding. If American public diplomacy practitioners are to move beyond the scope of propaganda, the first challenge is to understand the cultural and religious underpinnings of the target audience and start from their frame of reference. These practitioners must also be willing to listen, which entails “being ready to explore the legitimacy of some of our most basic beliefs…”[7] and conduct proper research to determine why people feel the way they do.

The challenge is that feelings and attitudes may often be questionable to an outsider. For instance: Seven years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many people in Middle Eastern cities still say that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not solely responsible for these attacks. They point their fingers at the United States and Israel, asserting that the latter clearly played a role in the planning and execution of that day’s events. These rumors would seem unfathomable to most Americans, yet the rumors have become conventional wisdom, and discussed in earnest across the region. As journalist Michael Slackman discovered, the tales have been passed along so often – even by the Arab media – that virtually no one remembers where or when they first heard them.[8] One 25-year-old driver in Cairo spoke matter-of-factly about the widespread rumor that Jews in the U.S. did not go to work in the World Trade Center on that day: “Everybody knows this,” the man said. “I saw it on TV, and a lot of people talk about this.”[9]

To add fuel to the rumors, the U.S. occupation of two Muslim countries counts as further proof to many in the Middle East that 9/11 was planned as an excuse to go to war. These views create a problem for public diplomats attempting to create a dialogue and foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and its international publics. Practitioners[10] are now pitted against rumors that have turned into widespread beliefs – and these are extremely difficult to alter.  

It’s clear that the intended message of American benevolence has somehow fallen on deaf ears. After 9/11, Americans often lamented, “Why do they hate us?” but they act surprised when their Muslim counterparts ask themselves the same question. The United States has failed to convince people across the region that it is engaged in a war on terror, not a crusade against Islam, therefore failing its first battle for “hearts and minds” of the region.[11]

This study focuses on the broadcasting arm of U.S. public diplomacy, utilized to disseminate messages from the United States in order to influence foreign audiences (in this case, a Middle Eastern audience.) Recently, these messages have focused on the “war of ideas” in which the United States is currently engaged. It is an identity-based conflict, making it even more difficult to cut through the values of each side. The naming of the “war of ideas” also has implications for U.S. public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy efforts tend to be plagued by the negative perceptions of government-sponsored (and funded) communication. For instance, broadcasting efforts in the Middle East are widely viewed as propaganda, a controversial style of one-way communication. Ideally, public diplomacy should represent two-way symmetrical communication in theory and practice.[12] This differs from the communications formerly associated with public diplomacy: propaganda, public relations, psychological warfare, and public affairs. Eytan Gilboa’s research found that many scholars and professionals have confused these communication types with public diplomacy despite the field’s move toward a two-way symmetrical model.[13] Public diplomacy, while drawing upon the tenants of public relations, psychology, and public opinion, is extremely multidisciplinary, as shown in the figure below. 

Source: Eytan Gilboa, “Searching for a theory of public diplomacy,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political & Social Science 616, (March 2008): 74.

 

Gilboa calls for a systematic and close collaboration between researchers and practitioners in various fields in order to advance public diplomacy research, crucially needed because of its central place in foreign policy and diplomacy.

THE NEED FOR AN EVALUATION OF PUBLIC DIPLOMACY

            There is a great need for the evaluation of U.S. public diplomacy efforts if the field is to advance not only in scope, but also in effectiveness. Another issue is that of credibility and accountability: American taxpayer money is funding the public diplomacy broadcasting efforts in the Middle East, and the credibility of the government arms overseeing the efforts have recently been questioned.

If the goal of American public diplomacy is to explain U.S. policy and bolster friendly feelings toward its people, then regional opinion polls in the Middle East indicate the efforts are failing. Perhaps this is due to historical tactics used and the themes reflected in the efforts. In a study of U.S. public diplomacy since the Cold War era, researcher Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman found five central themes: (a) U.S. interests in the Middle East; (b) influence the other; (c) hidden agendas; (d) propaganda-rural population dynamic; and (e) propaganda-national elite dynamic.[14] Central to each of these is the importance placed on influence through one-way communication. Dutta-Bergman explains, “The articulation of problems by the sender without engaging the cultural members of the receiving space reflects a myopic conceptualization of the communicative process, leaving a great deal of space for misconception of the problem and accompanying solutions.”[15] There is no relationship between sender and receiver; thus the stage is set for further misunderstanding in future efforts. Dutta-Bergman suggests the use of dialogue and relationship-building as tools in a culture-centered approach to public diplomacy.[16]

            Perhaps the proposed disconnect between messenger and audience comes from the tendency of American foreign policy to ignore the importance of religion in international affairs. But as the public and social significance of religion has become more apparent, with policymakers acknowledging the role religion plays in politics and international affairs, U.S.-led initiatives have begun. For instance, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life joined forces with the Brookings Institution in 2004 to publish a series examining the intersection of religion and public affairs. One of its authors, Shibley Telhami, an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East and the role of the news media in shaping public opinion, explains that the roles of religious ideas versus religious organizations may differ in world politics. Religious organizations are of greater prominence to society and politics in certain parts of the world[17], as can be seen in the contrast between Muslim countries under authoritarian rule and the United States, which strives to keep church and state separate.[18] Telhami lamented the consequences of the United States’ tendency to focus on its own values and interests the values and interests of other states.

            According to Douglas Johnston, religion is the missing dimension of statecraft, especially in the United States, where citizens are accustomed to the separation of church and state and thus fail to realize that much of the world operates in a different fashion:

Foreign policy practitioners in the United States…are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where the imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.[19]

Edward Luttwak suggests that “religion attachés” could be assigned to diplomatic missions in countries where religion has a particular salience. The diplomats would monitor religious movements and work with religious leaders.[20]A recent bipartisan leadership group on U.S.-Muslim relations was formed to help correct this missing dimension.[21] In January 2007, the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project was launched by a group of 34 American leaders[22] concerned about the rise of tension and violence between the United States and Muslim countries. Convened by two public consensus-building organizations, Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute, the project’s report states, “Policies and actions – not a clash of civilizations – are at the root of our divisions.”[23] The leadership group operated from the premise, based on public opinion research, that “large majorities of Americans and Muslims around the world are far m ore united than divided in many of their core interests,” including respect for religious faith and its public expression.[24] There are differences between Americans and Muslims in their views on social issues, such as the institutional role of religion in shaping law and public policy, and also on how the two groups perceive each other’s intentions and actions on various issues in the region.[25]

Ultimately, the leadership group recommended a new strategy for the incoming administration of Barack Obama. The strategy has four pillars: (1) Elevate diplomacy as the primary tool for resolving key conflicts involving Muslim countries, engaging both allies and adversaries in dialogue; (2) Support efforts to improve governance and promote civic participation in Muslim countries, and advocate for principles rather than parties in their internal political contests; (3) Help catalyze job-creating growth in Muslim countries to benefit both the U.S. and Muslim countries’ economies; and (4) Improve mutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims around the world.[26] The fourth pillar relates to the public diplomacy efforts the leadership group hopes to see employed: two-way communication that helps tear down the “perceptual and psychological barriers that have built up in many Muslim countries and communities during the last decade…”[27] The leadership group advised the new administration to be respectful of Islam as a religion in all public statements. The report also urged public officials to refrain from linking the term “Islam” or key tenets of the religion with the actions of extremist or terrorist groups. Naming has become increasingly important in international affairs, and can have adverse effects on attempts at intercultural communications.

NATIONALISM AND THE POLITICS OF NAMING

We are in the age of globalization, which Manuel Castells refers to as the “age of nationalist resurgence, expressed both in the challenge to established nation-states and in the widespread (re)construction of identity on the basis of nationality, always affirmed against the alien.”[28] American patriotism was renewed post-9/11 and fueled by a sentiment of “us” versus the alien “other.” Muslims worldwide defended their beliefs and condemned the attacks, all while being placed under intense scrutiny. Castells notes that shared experiences also build nations and a strong national identity. For the U.S., this shared experience on the day of the attacks awakened an identity associated with Pearl Harbor or the Cold War, for the “war on terror” would pit them against the “other” once again.

Nationalism is also constructed by social action and reaction, both by elites and by the masses.[29] You’re either with us or against us – so went the reactionary message America sent to the world. It was first spoken by President Bush but later echoed by many as Americans struggled to understand the abstract nature of engaging in war on “terror” and “ideas.”

To Michael Bhatia, the politics of naming is instrumental in identifying core themes in the discourse of conflict. Indeed, the “war on terror” shows just how powerful a name, once assigned, can be. It is enough to supersede any objective look at the process through which the name was given, giving way to a “series of normative associations, motives and characteristics” that are attached to the named subject.[30] Bhatia views words to be as powerful as bombs, a view that contradicts, “the old childhood axiom of ‘sticks and stones’ for, in contemporary armed conflict, ‘names’ do matter and are seen to ‘hurt.’”[31] This suggests that the U.S. is not only engaged in a physical war but also in a war of discourse. Bhatia argues, “The pronouncement of a ‘war on terror’ has forced many to verbally negotiate and assert who they are, who they are allied with, and who they are against.”[32]

The process of “naming” is described as the method in which one identifies an object, removes it from the unknown, and then assigns it a set of characteristics, motives, values, and behaviors.[33] Names, for the recipient or audience, help define the nature of the situation and leave the individual or entity named to be evaluated based on their moral rightness. Pintak calls the politics of naming “an old trick of leaders under siege,” used to distract and unite the nation.[34] The public should use caution: A name cannot reveal the complete picture, nor is a name all-encompassing.

Naming exists in the struggle for the sympathy and support of an audience, yet the audience within the same conflict may vary. For instance, the Bush administration’s rhetoric of good versus evil, of “murderers and terrorists,” and perhaps more memorably as “with us” or “against us” appeals to broad segments of the U.S. public, but it also has alienated many within the United States and throughout the world.

As Pintak notes, the very process of defining – and labeling – terror is a political minefield. In his book Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens, Pintak examines the perceptions of American policy in the Muslim world, particularly since 9/11. He argues that President Bush’s off-the-cuff comment about a crusade against terror led many in the Muslim world to believe that Bush presided over a series of policy statements and actions that were inherently anti-Muslim and imperialistic. Even a shift in attitudes toward Americans as individuals occurred. Pintak contrasts a 2002 poll that found 50 percent of Jordanians had a favorable view of Americans with a 2004 poll that found only 21 percent of Jordanians distinguished American people favorably from the U.S. government. [35] In the past, a clear distinction between U.S. foreign policy and the American people was more readily accepted. But now, Pintak asserts, any goodwill toward Americans has “disappeared like a desert mirage.”[36]

Indeed, many Muslim leaders fear, despite U.S. assurances to the contrary, that America is fighting a war on Islam. The BBC reports that Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, Iran’s religious leader, argued that the United States and Israel “are fighting Islam by giving other names to their adversary” and have expanded the meaning of terrorism to “crush liberating movements.”[37] Khamene’i suggested that the United States fears a massive force concentrated inside the Islamic ummah community and thus hides its true intentions of fighting Islam under the banner of the “war on terror.” Others in the Islamic community have echoed this sentiment.

Julia Peteet explains that the term “terrorist,” often is used to describe someone “beyond the pale of civilized society and the reaches of international diplomacy.”[38]  The term is extremely powerful and often viewed as all-encompassing; it denotes seemingly senseless rage, “evil,” and destruction. It also harms efforts at religious understanding: “Secular demons have been replaced with religious ones intersecting with the rise of militant Islam and U.S. declaration of war on terrorism.”[39] Words, rhetoric, and discourse are more important than ever before.[40]

PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: NEGOTIATING RELIGION AND CULTURE

Pintak asserts that Arab and non-Arab Muslims share a basic worldview that unites across borders and transcends local culture, ethnicity, and nationalism. Religion, therefore, can be considered a cultural system through which “religious nationalism” emerges as a political force, thus connecting Muslims across geographic and political spectrums via the emphasis of a Muslim identity in the face of the “American Other.”[41] There’s always going to be an “Other,” yet even the labeling of the so-called “Muslim world” is problematic. The Muslim world “is not a monolith, it is neither a cohesive political unit nor home to all of the world’s Muslims; but it is the focal point of any discussion of post-9/11 global affairs.”[42] Still, there is no disputing the importance of engaging with its community through public diplomacy.

The U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project seeks to rid us of the idea of the “Other” and instead focus on expanding “society respect and understanding through scaling up and deepening of mutual education, dialogue, exchange, and media coverage.”[43] Cross-cultural education is at the heart of understanding the “Other.” The report suggests that this education can occur through schools, universities, and community events with topics on the common roots and values of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the political history of the Muslim world, and the role of religion in politics. The leadership group also supports an increase in international exchanges (including conversation through Web-based video dialogue[44]) and the support of more well-publicized interfaith discussions.[45]

If practitioners are to operate in a manner that is aware of both religious and cultural underpinnings, which often differ from those of the United States, the questions then become: To what extent should broadcasting efforts cater to the ideals of its audience? Does religion have a role in a U.S.-government sponsored effort? Should public diplomacy efforts accommodate the religious nature of countries in which it broadcasts? These are difficult questions that serve as points for further discourse. For now, the focus of this study rests on outlets like Voice of America Arabic, Radio Sawa, and Al-Hurra Television. For these government broadcasting outlets, communications efforts have failed in their ultimate goal of improving U.S. image abroad, and the implications of this, and possible solutions to it, will be examined. 

OLD BROADCASTING EFFORTS

            Voice of America (VOA) began in response to the needs of peoples in closed and war-torn societies for reliable news. [46] Although VOA is funded and controlled by the U.S. government, it has played an important role in societies in need of a more balanced news source. Voice of America broadcasts in a variety of languages, including Arabic, which was first translated and broadcast on February 25, 1942. VOA experienced a brief period of inactivity until Congress and President Truman signed the Smith-Mundt Act (Public Law 402) on January 27, 1948, thus reviving public diplomacy programs.[47] Voice of America-Arabic was one such service put back into effect in 1950. A former VOA employee explains, “A distinguishable feature of the early Arabic service was its reflection of Arab culture and society to draw listeners to programming about the United States and American policies,” with focus on “soft,” nonpolitical programming as well.[48]

A distinctive feature of the Arabic service was its focus on broadcasting English lessons. As with other VOA efforts, VOA-Arabic operated under the mission to be accurate, objective, and comprehensive in newscasts and programming.[49] But by 1994, VOA-Arabic broadcasts had been reduced from peak coverage during the Gulf War and was struggling to compete in an increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas.[50] In the period of 1995 to 2000, Arab audiences for international radio broadcasting significantly declined as the use of FM and satellite TV soared.[51]

Voice of America’s Arabic service was eliminated in 2002, shortly after 9/11. It was replaced by another U.S.-funded and U.S.-run radio broadcast effort. Before VOA-Arabic was shut down, it broadcast a variety of cultural and educational programs, with less emphasis on music. It was considered an authoritative news channel, performing valuable public diplomacy roles in regions where news is often censored. VOA-Arabic had become a brand name in the Arab world, and its elimination may have been a serious mistake. The journalists at VOA strove to be effective international communicators, as bound by VOA’s charter, and those who produced the programs had an understanding of other cultures. The loss of the VOA-Arabic service was a blow to public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East despite the fact that VOA still covers the Arab region in its regular broadcasts and Internet coverage; the programming was integral to intercultural communication.

            Laurie Kassman, a 23-year veteran of VOA and former director of communications and outreach for the Middle East Institute in Washington, relayed the story of a trip into Baghdad in 2003 in which Iraqi people complained to her that they could no longer hear the informative VOA-Arabic programs that they had grown up with. One Iraqi teacher was distraught to be without access to the English programs she used for her college students. [52]  Many Iraqis switched to the BBC’s English and Arabic broadcasts, thus depriving U.S. public diplomacy of an effective tool in which to reach a crucial audience. Kassman said that VOA “shows sensitivity to the cultures and histories of others, which could help bridge the gap of mistrust and misunderstandings.”[53] But the U.S. government had other plans for public diplomacy broadcasting efforts in the Middle East.

NEW BROADCASTING EFFORTS

The Middle East Broadcasting Networks Inc. (MBN) is a nonprofit grantee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, enabling the United States to communicate with the Middle East via television, radio, and the Internet.[54] MBN oversees all broadcasting ventures aimed at a Middle Eastern audience.

On March 23, 2002, Radio Sawa (Arabic for “together”) a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Arabic-language radio network, began broadcasting to audiences in the Middle East. To attract young listeners, it focused most of its content on Arabic and Western pop music, with short news bulletins interspersed at the quarter hour. Norman Pattiz commissioned a survey and conducted research before embarking on the costly venture of Radio Sawa. His research discerned three key results: (1) More than 60 percent of the population is under 30; (2) the indigenous media, especially radio, was “pretty dull” and sounded like government radio; and (3) people were interested in something that didn’t sound like government radio.[55] Thus, the predominantly pop radio station was born, with the on-air slogan that boasts of “the loveliest tunes and the latest news” but never identifies itself as an American station.[56] The music of American artists, such as Britney Spears, were interspersed with Arabic pop music – with little focus on the news.

Estimates show that Radio Sawa provides between 7 and 17 minutes of world news per hour, an average of 10 minutes per hour, for 24 hours – far less than the 600-minute-per-day claim made by Sawa officials in media interviews. Another serious problem is that Radio Sawa’s news handling is done with “shocking disregard for news value or breaking news,”[57] which is reflected in its constant flow of pop music and lackluster attempts at news gathering. The overemphasis on pop music points to a successful commercial enterprise that appeals to young adults but is ineffective in communicating public diplomacy messages.

Two years after the unveiling of Radio Sawa, Al-Hurra television was launched on February 14, 2004. Al-Hurra (Arabic for “The Free One”) was launched with the intent to compete with popular Arab news channels Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Pattiz launched Al-Hurra, saying its goal was to “present fresh perspectives for viewers in the Middle East that we believe will create more cultural understanding and respect.”[58] Some scholars and practitioners in the public diplomacy world suggest that Pattiz failed in this mission.

Researcher Mohammed el-Nawawy recently studied Arab opinion of the United States. While examining the news credibility of Al-Hurra television and Radio Sawa in the Arab world, el-Nawawy pointed to the target audience of these broadcasting outlets: the younger Arab generation, the region’s future decision-makers.[59] The official objective of these broadcasting efforts is to help explain various aspects of American foreign policy and “to provide information about basic characteristics of American society that are important for Arab and Muslim audiences to know and understand.”[60] Public opinion research plays a crucial role in designing foreign policy and enhancing mutual understanding between nations – the goals of U.S. public diplomacy.[61]

The problem is that many in the target audience see Al-Hurra and Radio Sawa as nothing more than U.S.-sponsored propaganda (funded and produced in the U.S.) and therefore are very skeptical of their credibility. El-Nawawy studied a small convenience sample of the target audience – Arab university students in Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, and the UAE – to determine the perceived credibility of these media outlets and whether they had a positive impact on attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. One of the most significant findings was that the respondents’ attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy had worsened slightly since their exposure to Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra. Many felt that the U.S. was trying to “manipulate Arab opinion through networks such as Sawa and Al-Hurra.”[62]

Similarly, Arab satellite station Al Jazeera reported on Al-Hurra’s launch, surveying a number of reactions from Palestinian intellectuals, academics, journalists, and public opinion leaders. Many felt that the real motivation behind the news station was to undermine Islamic values and perpetuate America’s perceived religious war on Islam.[63] Some pointed to the “immoral values” and “promiscuity” prevalent in American programming and suggested that Al-Hurra’s programs would try to encourage a Western lifestyle and go against Islamic values.

Nancy Snow, a former United States Information Agency and State Department official, likewise criticized the “propagandistic moniker” of Al-Hurra’s Arabic translation, “the free one.” She criticized President Bush for claiming that Al-Hurra would help combat “the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States,”[64] and noted that Al-Hurra is not based in the Middle East but rather in Springfield, Virginia. (This fact may lead some to question the credibility and reliability of a source that broadcasts from the suburbs of Washington, D.C.)

Reviewing the Arab media reaction in 2004 spelled trouble for Al-Hurra; as Al Ahram, a prestigious Arabic-language newspaper, noted, “It is difficult to understand how the U.S., with its advanced research centers and clever minds, explains away Arab hatred as a product of a demagogic media and not due to [America’s] biased policies and propensity to abuse Arab interests.”[65] Magazine writer Amy Moufai remarked that she was surprised at the choice of Al-Hurra’s name, based on its Arabic translation: “It reeks of the whole notion of a white man’s bread…Let us teach you our free ways.”[66]

One of Al-Hurra’s largest problems is that it is plagued by mediocre programming (Arab journalists and viewers called the station “boring”), congressional interference, and a succession of executives who had little experience in television and could not speak Arabic.[67] A former senior editor at the station remarked that many people didn’t know how to do their job and, if something went wrong, would joke, “Well, nobody watches us anyway.”[68] Furthermore, Lawrence Pintak points to a major production mistake that left a sour taste for many Al-Hurra viewers:

            A month after Al-Hurra went on the air, the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by the Israelis. Millions of Palestinians jammed the streets of the Occupied Territories for his funeral. Across the Muslim world, all eyes turned to Palestine. Al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, and other Arab satellite channels carried the funeral live. Al-Hurra broadcast a cooking show. [69]

 

These gaffes should make us wonder: If American taxpayers are paying $350 million on Al-Hurra, ought the station and its executives be less cavalier about its importance?

In examining reports by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. agency overseeing Al-Hurra, one is led to believe that Al-Hurra is reaching its goals of viewership. Internal surveys show that its audience has expanded by about 28 percent over the past four years, with an estimated 25.8 million adults in 13 countries tuning into Al-Hurra at least once a week.[70] However, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, has questioned the reliability of those numbers, citing weaknesses in sampling methodology and documentation.[71]

Another troubling aspect of Al-Hurra’s credibility was investigated by CBS News and ProPublica.[72] The investigators discovered that no one in Al-Hurra’s upper management spoke fluent Arabic and therefore could not monitor what was being broadcast day in and day out. In addition, insiders at Al-Hurra said that the station has been undermined by loose financial and editorial controls. People in the Middle East, even American diplomats who speak Arabic, questioned the “quality” and “professionalism” of Al-Hurra.[73]

The BBG, on the defensive, produced a mocking response to the CBS/ProPublica investigation, writing, “ProPublica’s ‘investigative report’ on Alhurra television is so lacking in depth and accuracy that it can only be defined as sensationalism.”[74] The response would have been a decent rebuttal if the BBG soon after had not refused to make public the findings of an independent study it had commissioned to review Al-Hurra’s content.[75]

Results of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy study, completed in July 2008, were withheld from both the public and from members of the House Foreign Affairs committee. ProPublica’s request for a copy of the report, made under the Freedom of Information Act, was denied. Additionally, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy could not comment on publication plans for the study.[76] These factors created a cloud of suspicion and mystery surrounding the report. When it was finally released in December 2008, its conclusions raised many eyebrows  – especially in light of  an ongoing House Foreign Affairs  inquiry into Al-Hurra.[77]

Portions of the executive summary of the USC study are as follows: The researchers see “the principle issues affecting Alhurra as being those related to the fundamentals of journalism…[relating] directly to the issue of Alhurra’s fulfillment of its legislative mandate and its responsibilities deriving from the Middle East Broadcast Network Journalistic Code of Ethics.”[78] It concluded that Al-Hurra was not performing at an optimal level. The study found that Al-Hurra’s programming was perceived as being similar to traditional, state-funded media in the Middle East, and that the quality of journalism was substandard on many levels. Content analysis of Al-Hurra programming found, among other issues, that: (1) news stories lacked appropriate balance and sourcing and that (2) Al-Hurra relied on unsubstantiated information too often, allowed the on-air expression of personal judgments too frequently, and failed to present opposing views in more than 60 percent of its news stories.[79] Discussion groups backed up these findings of weak journalism, noting the lack of standardized Arabic language use, the overly critical reporting of Arab political and opinion leaders, and an overall tilted representation of the news.[80] Al-Hurra was found to be twice as likely to praise the Western outlook of an issue rather than the (usually Arab) perspective. Perhaps most troubling to public diplomacy practitioners was the conclusion that, when contrasting Al-Hurra to other new Arab media organizations, “Alhurra seems out of touch with its audience.”[81]

The USC report touched briefly on the issue of religion, finding that Al-Hurra was relatively neutral on this topic but had a general lack of coverage of Islam. Given the centrality of Islam in the lives of so many in region, USC suggested that the sparse coverage of religion, in particular Islam, should be addressed. The study made clear that if Al-Hurra were to fulfill its mandate from Congress and serve as a useful piece of foreign policy, reform would be necessary.

CONCLUSION

Ambassador William Rugh is an American expert on Arab media. In a report he edited on behalf of the Public Diplomacy Council, Rugh concluded that public diplomacy practitioners do the best they can with the available means, but “years of regional neglect and a steady erosion of funding, among other factors, have left them with few effective tools.”[82]  Rugh suggests that in order to revitalize engagement with Arab and Muslim nations, the U.S. should reinstate or modify many of the public diplomacy mechanisms that have proved effective in the past. This includes the interactive, dialogue-driven component, made possible through the international broadcasting mechanism.[83] Rugh points out that dialogue is often the most powerful device, such as with the call-in program format sometimes used by broadcasting arms of public diplomacy. This format helps facilitate discussion on various issues of concern to the audience and allows opposing viewpoints to be discussed in a respectful manner, complete with immediate, direct responses to questions. Perhaps the government will consider reviving the Voice of America-Arabic station, in recognition that Radio Sawa is failing to be an effective tool of foreign policy.

But as Nisbet et al. found, mass-mediated public diplomacy, whether in the form of U.S.-sponsored television or radio stations, should only be one facet of U.S. communication efforts. They argue that, “the United States needs to invest in educational and cultural exchange centers in Muslim countries, with U.S. representatives playing an important role in Muslim communities, complementing mass communication campaigns with person-to-person interaction.”[84] New broadcasting technologies, be they Internet or satellite driven, cannot replace the “last three feet,” as Edward R. Murrow, former director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), often remarked.[85]  The most crucial and effective public diplomacy tool is one that engages Americans personally with citizens of another country – going the final three feet to make that face-to-face contact. This includes fostering educational exchanges and maintaining centers for cultural exchange and learning. The United States should revive American centers, English language programs, and libraries overseas, despite the concerns of security.

So while international broadcasting efforts for American public diplomacy are crucial and should be investigated further by the GAO and other oversight committees for their effectiveness and ability to connect with audiences, they are only one of the many tools available to the public diplomacy practitioner. So long as the American public is paying for these broadcasting efforts, however, every effort should be made to be transparent in examining their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) in achieving their stated goals. The BBG must get on board, not only by evaluating its MBN broadcasting but also by following through with the necessary changes for its initiatives.

It is also important for practitioners to recognize the importance of religion in their areas of expertise. The following was written in 1994, but I would argue that it still holds true today:

Policymakers, diplomats, journalists, and scholars who are ready to over interpret economic causality, who are apt to dissect social differentiations most finely, and who will minutely categorize political affiliations are still in the habit of disregarding the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics and conflict, and even in reporting their concrete modalities. Equally, the role of religious leaders, religious institutions, and religiously motivated lay figures in conflict resolution has also been disregarded – or treated as a marginal phenomenon hardly worth noting.[86]


Religious and cultural underpinnings are crucial in the work of public diplomacy practitioners. One of the major issues with the messages disseminated through American public diplomacy broadcasting is that current practitioners have not, until very recently, received formal education and theoretical background into these areas. If public diplomats renew efforts to continually engage and learn about their publics, it is quite possible that the strategic communication of practitioners will be effective and ultimately achieve public diplomacy goals. But in order to be two-way and not a monologue, these communications efforts must stray from the emphasis on “massaging the minds of the public, on building an image and shifting public opinion about the United States,”
[87] and focus instead on accepting honest input from the audience and adjusting diplomatic efforts accordingly. In this sense, a dialogue would help practitioners suggest future policy decisions that are dynamic and relevant to the issues at hand.

            Although it is true that practitioners must go those final three feet and make face-to-face contact, additional questions arise from this look at public diplomacy broadcasting efforts. For instance, who is really driving the conversation in public diplomacy efforts? Just because the ideals of “two-way communication” are being preached inside the public diplomacy circles, doesn’t mean we’re changing our current rhetoric. Will practitioners put more focus on dialogue, and not a monologue? The future success of public diplomacy efforts, including those of broadcasting arms, rests on these questions and serves as appropriate ones to be examined and evaluated as the attempt to win the “hearts and minds” continues.

  

 

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[1] William A. Rugh, ed., Engaging the Arab & Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy, report, School of Media and Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy Council (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, 2004), 1. There are many other accepted definitions for public diplomacy.

[2] Mark Leonard, Catherine Stead, and Conrad Smewing, Public Diplomacy (New York: Foreign Policy Centre, 2002).

[3] Stanton Burnett, “Implications for the Foreign Policy Community,” in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, ed. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 294.

[4] Burnett, 287.

[5] Lawrence Pintak, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas (New York: Pluto Press, 2005), 2.

[6] Leonard, Stead, and Smewing, 46.

[7] Leonard, Stead, and Smewing, 47.

[8] Michael Slackman, “9/11 Rumors that Become Conventional Wisdom,” The New York Times, September 9, 2008, http://nytimes.com.           

[9] Slackman.

[10] The term “practitioner” is used in the broad sense. Typically, leading officials such as U.S. diplomats, U.S. ambassadors, the Secretary of State, and regional Assistant Secretaries in the State Department and the Department of Defense are billed as being “public diplomats” for America. Recent expansions of the meaning of public diplomacy and an increased emphasis on its multidisciplinary attributes have resulted in the works of international organizations (IOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public relations firms as being included in the realm of work by public diplomacy practitioners.

[11] Slackman.

[12] The Department of Defense recently was criticized for its attempts at strategic two-way communication. On April 15, 2009, The New York Times reported that the office for support to public diplomacy at the Defense Department was closed. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/16/us/politics/16policy.html?_r=1&emc=eta1.

[13] Eytan Gilboa, “Searching for a theory of public diplomacy,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political & Social Science 616, (March 2008): 56.

[14] Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman, “U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East: A Critical Cultural Approach,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2006): 106.

[15] Dutta-Bergman, 117.

[16] Dutta-Bergman, 119.

[17] Shibley Telhami, “Between Faith and Ethics,” in Liberty and power: a dialogue on religion and U.S. foreign policy in an unjust world, ed. E.J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Kayla Drogosz (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 71.

[18] Ironically, the distinction between church and state in the U.S. is not as clear-cut as it appears on the surface. This is a big disingenuous when contrasting the U.S. with Muslim countries.

[19] Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, ed., Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford UP, 1994), 4-5.

[20] Edward Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, ed. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (New York: Oxford UP, 1994), 16.

[21] For further explanation, see Barry Rubin, “Religion and International Affairs,” in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, ed. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (New York: Oxford UP, 1994), 20-34.

[22] Leaders were drawn from the fields of foreign and defense policy, politics, business, religion, education, public opinion, psychology, philanthropy, and conflict resolution. Eleven Muslim-Americans were among the 34 leaders in the group.

[23] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, Search for Common Ground, and the Consensus Building Institute. Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World. Report. First Printing. Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project, 2008, 1.

[24] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 33.

[25] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 33.

[26] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 36.

[27] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 75.

[28] Manuel Castells, “Communal heavens: identity and meaning in a network society,” in The Power of Identity: Economy, Society, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 27.

[29] Castells, 31.

[30] Michael V. Bhatia, “Fighting words: naming terrorists, bandits, rebels and other violent actors,” Third World Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2005): 8.

[31] Bhatia, 6.

[32] Bhatia, 7.

[33] MK Adler, Naming and Addressing: A Sociolinguistic Study (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1978), 12, 93-94. As cited in Michael V. Bhatia, “Fighting words: naming terrorists, bandits, rebels and other violent actors,” Third World Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2005): 8.

[34] Pintak, 7.

[35] Pintak, Preface xi.

[36] Pintak, Preface xi.

[37] BBC Worldwide Monitoring, “Khamene'i says, US uses war against terror as excuse to attack Islam,” December 24, 2003 (accessed December 6, 2008).

[38] Julie Peteet, “Words as interventions: naming in the Palestine-Israel conflict,” Third World Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2005): 169.

[39] Peteet, 169.

[40] Peteet, 171.

[41] Pintak, 12.

[42] Pintak, Preface xvii.

[43] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 79.

[44] See the Soliya Web site at www.soliya.net for an example of using the Web to bridge cultural divides.

[45] Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, 82.

[47] Alan L. Heil Jr., “A History of VOA Arabic: A Half-Century of Service to the Nation and the Arab World,” in William A. Rugh, ed., Engaging the Arab & Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy, report, School of Media and Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy Council (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, 2004), 50-51.

[48] Heil Jr., 51-52.

[49] Heil Jr., 51.

[50] Heil Jr., 65.

[51] Heil Jr., 66.

[52] Kassman, 3.

[53] Kassman, 11.

[55] Sam Hilmy, “Radio Sawa: America's new adventure in radio broadcasting,” Arab Media & Society, (May 2007): 1

[56] Hilmy, 1.

[57] Hilmy, 2.

[58] Mohammed El-Nawawy, “U.S. Public Diplomacy and the News Credibility of Radio Sawa and Television Al Hurra in the Arab World,” in New Media and the New Middle East, ed. Philip Seib, 1st ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 125.

[59] El-Nawawy, 119.

[60] Rugh, as cited in El-Nawawy,120. El-Nawawy cautioned that methodological difficulties, language barriers, and foreign government bureaucracies made the task of studying audience impact of international broadcasting more difficult.

[61] El-Nawawy, 121.

[62] El-Nawawy, 132.

[63] Khalid Amayreh, “U.S. TV Channel Raises Palestinian Ire”, http://english.aljazeera.net (accessed November 2, 2008).

[64] Nancy Snow, “Al Hurra - Al Who?: Haven't heard? We're Free, They're Not!”O'Dwyer's PR Daily, March 9, 2004, http://commondreams.org.

[65] Cited in Snow.

[66] Cited in Snow.

[67] Craig Whitlock, “U.S. Network Falters in Mideast Mission,” Washington Post, June 23, 2008, Washingtonpost.com,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/06/22/ST2008062201236.html.

[68] Whitlock.

[69] Pintak, 260.

[70] Whitlock.

[71] Whitlock.

[72] Scott Pelley, “U.S.-Funded Arab TV's Credibility Crisis,” in 60 Minutes, CBS, June 22, 2008, http://cbsnews.com.

[73] Pelley.

[74] Broadcasting Board of Governors Corrects ProPublica's Report on Alhurra Television, June 30, 2008, http://www.bbg.gov/pressroom/pressreleases-article.cfm?articleID=244

[75] Dafna Linzer, “USC Study of Alhurra Withheld from Public; Inquiries of Network's Operation Deepen,” ProPublica, November 4, 2008, http://www.propublica.org  (accessed December 6, 2008).

[76] Linzer.

[77] Linzer.

[78] Philip Seib and Nicholas Cull, An evaluation of Alhurra television programming, report (Los Angeles: USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, 2008), 3, http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org.

[79] Seib and Cull, 4.

[80] Seib and Cull, 5.

[81] Seib and Cull, 6.

[82] Rugh, 156.

[83] Rugh, 156.

[84] Nisbet et al.,33.

[85] Kenton W. Keith, “‘The Last Three Feet’”: Making the Personal Connection,” in Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy, ed. William A. Rugh (Washington, D.C.: Public Diplomacy Council, 2004), 12. Keith quoted Murrow as saying, “The crucial link in the communication chain is the last three feet – one person talking to another.”

[86] Edward Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” in Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, ed., Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 9-10.

[87] Dutta-Bergman, 116.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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