Winning Hearts and Minds

The Washington Post has an article about an as-yet-unreleased report on Radio Sawa, one of the Bush administration's attempts--along with Hi Magazine and Al Hurra TV station--to change the hearts and minds in the Arab world. The article says the report--which was commissioned by the State Department's inspector general-- is highly critical of Sawa, which is one of the reasons it (the report) hasn't been released yet. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees all of the above mentioned media channels, as well as Voice of America Radio) has strongly disagreed with the findings of the reports and is seemingly in the process of "watering" it down.

I do freelance work for VOA radio here in Cairo, so I know a little about this. A few years ago VOA's Arabic radio service was discontinued, and Radio Sawa was created instead. Sawa features a blend of pop music and short news. In the opinion of most VOA journalists, Sawa is not a serious news station (not to mention that it's an interloper). Instead of 3 to 4 minutes reports that used to air on VOA's Arabic service, Sawa airs at the most 45 second long news items. Also, supposedly the quality of reporting has suffered (this is noted in the leaked State Department report as well). People also complain that while VOA Arabic had a solid, age-old reputation and wide-spread name recognition, Sawa does not enjoy the same esteem, and is seen as fluff and progaganda (Arabs have wondered why Sawa doesn't openly state that it's a US government station). I have heard of interviewees granting interviews to VOA and specifically stipulating that they not be aired on Sawa. If people are really refusing to give Sawa interviews then that really does speak to a generally low opinion of the station.

The Washington Post article quotes Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, "VOA unions are obsessed over knocking Sawa." It's certainly true that VOA employees have resented Sawa since its creation--they have even sent petitions to Congress about it. Part of this may be territoriality, but most of it I think is seasoned professional journalists watching a good news service get dismantled and a crappy radio station created in its place.

The whole way Sawa has been created has all the Bush administration trademarks:

1) Appoint an ideologically sympathetic businessman to run the operation (much as advertising mogul Charlotte Biers was appointed to her disastrous stint as head of public diplomacy). The guy running the whole Hi/Sawa/Hurra show is BBG member Norman J. Pattiz, a radio tycoon from California. With what I'm guessing is little experience in public diplomacy, journalism or the Middle East, he has focused single-mindedly on "building audience," making Sawa a pop-music station to attract the huge under-25 audience in the Middle East.

2) Rely on simplistic, flawed and condescending assumptions. The idea that Arab audiences can't be reached by a serious news channel, but rather have to be tricked into listening by a barrage of US pop music and then slipped a little bit of the news on the hour is insulting. Arabs are much more interested in current events and politics than Americans are, for one. Also, what does this approach gain? Even if the whole Middle East listens to Britney Spears, is that really going to make them start calling the invasion of Iraq a "liberation"? Arabs know when they're being pandered to. They can listen to our music and still think our politics are bogus, and the only thing that could change that (besides the obvious, changing our politics) is to offer substantive news coverage, talk shows, in-depth reports, etc.

3) Don't consult any of the seasoned professionals who have been working in the field, thus alienating them all (see my remarks about VOA employees above). Choose your staff based on loyalty to your vision rather than on competency.

4) End up with a shallow, out-of-touch, low-quality, ideologically driven product.

5) Refuse to aknowledge criticism of the results. The Board of Governors is fighting the State Department report tooth and nail, and will probably succeed in having its conclusions re-written.

And the same issues apply to Hi magazine (which had one of the most dismal receptions I've ever seen) and Al Hurra, which is so in touch with the Middle East that it is run almost entirely by a cabal of pro-American Lebanese Maronites. These initiatives are all part and parcel of the Bush administration's huge failure in public diplomacy--a failure to engage in any kind of open, substantive, respectful dialogue with people in the Middle East, because these people are not seen as valid interlocutors but rather as children that need to be brainwashed into agreement using whatever the most effective and shallow commercial means are available. (Hum, sounds like their attitude to the American public). And not only are these methods reprehensible, they don't work.