NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

New Media and U.S. Foreign Policy

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008

William A. Rugh
Based on remarks delivered at workshop on New Media and the Reconstruction of Popular Culture in the Arab World. Georgetown University Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies. May 17, 2006.

During the course of the past 15 years, major changes have taken place in Arab media, principally with the emergence of Arab satellite television. Prior to 1990, almost all Arab radio and television channels were government monopolies, and most print media were under various forms of direct and indirect government influence. Arab journalists observed written laws, most of which contained provisions allowing state control of media content one way or another. They also observed unwritten taboos, and many practiced self-censorship. For many Arabs, the only alternatives to media dominated by their governments were foreign broadcasters such as the BBC, VOA & Radio Monte Carlo. The most important exception was found in Lebanon, where the political system fostered newspapers representing a variety of different views. But the electronic media tended to be very uniform and controlled in each country. [1]

That situation began to change in the early 1990s as Arab satellite television stations were established, first in Europe, which aimed at a pan-Arab viewing audience. Prior to that, a few daily newspapers such as al Hayat and al Sharq al Awsat had been established in Europe that catered to a pan-Arab readership, and they were somewhat less beholden to individual Arab governments than most Arab dailies. But real changes in the direction of greater Arab media independence from government restrictions came with Arab satellite television.

One motivation for the sponsors of the first satellite TV stations was a concern that television news coverage and commentary provided during the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 by CNN, that many Arabs watched, carried a Western bias and failed to present the Arab view sufficiently. CNN was attractive to Arab audiences because of its rapid and extensive news coverage, but many Arabs found it lacking in sensitivity to issues and events of importance to them.  The first Arab satellite television channels to be established carried a substantial amount of entertainment along with some news and current events. But it was the arrival in 1996 of a new channel named al Jazeera Television that clearly a new era in Arab media began.

Although al Jazeera was sponsored and funded by the Government of Qatar, from the beginning it began treating news and commentary in a way that was different from other Arab TV stations. Al Jazeera quickly became popular becs of to three unique features. First, it specialized in news and current affairs 24/7, as the first Arab channel to do so. (ANN and al Arabiya followed later). Secondly, its reporters covered stories on the spot that had previously been covered only from a distance if at all by Arab media. Thus al Jazeera correspondents began reporting from inside Israel, breaking a taboo based on the political boycott of Israel observed for decades by Arab governments. Al Jazeera also opened a bureau in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime invited foreign media companies to do so. The other foreign media declined the Taliban invitation, so the al Jazeera reporters in Afghanistan developed unique contacts and access with the Taliban regime that turned out to be very valuable in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Third, al Jazeera started a series of discussion, debate and call-in programs that tackled previously taboo subjects. One sign of the revolutionary nature of these discussion programs was that at one time or another, they antagonized every Arab government, leading to retaliation against al Jazeera by expelling its reporters or closing its bureau. [2]

As al Jazeera ran afoul of Arab governments, it built a strong pubic following and became the number one TV channel in popularity among Arab viewers. By 2003 it had lost its lead in some markets due to the emergence of other new Arab satellite TV channels such as al Arabiya, al Manar, and Abu Dhabi that copied its style to some extent, but still remained a leading player among Arab media.

The other major development in Arab media during the past decade or so has been the dramatic growth of the Internet, including not only email but websites, chat rooms and blogs. Use of the cellular phone also spread rapidly. The expansion of all of these new technical means of communication in several directions has substantially raised the amount of information flowing around the globe, giving more people access to information than they ever had before. This is certainly true in the Arab world, where the cell phone and satellite television in particular have become ubiquitous.

American Reactions

Although American diplomats working in the Arab world were aware of these changes in the Arab media scene as they occurred, senior U.S. Government officials paid little attention to them as they developed during the 1990s. This was in part because with the end of the cold war, America’s overall public diplomacy effort was cut back, and Washington paid less attention to what the foreign press was saying. Public diplomacy funding and staffing declined during the 1990s. Then in 1999 Congress passed legislation which further weakened it. That legislation abolished the U.S. Information Agency and put the Voice of America under the autonomous Broadcasting Board of Governors, insulating it from effective State Department policy supervision. [3] Another reason Washington ignored al Jazeera was that its programming at first did not seem to be a problem for the United States. In fact, some of the early criticism of al Jazeera by Arab governments focused on the station’s broadcasts of interviews with Israeli officials, constituting an action that those governments considered a violation of the Arab boycott of Israel; Washington did not object to the erosion of that boycott.

But the attack on America on 9/11 focused the attention of Washington officials focused on Arab satellite television. They did so because shortly after 9/11, al Jazeera began broadcasting statements by bin Ladin that made Washington officials suddenly aware of that station. Because the al Jazeera bureau had been in Afghanistan for some time, at first it received bin Ladin’s recorded statements as exclusives, and they were repeated worldwide on many TV channels with the al Jazeera logo in the corner.  The shock of Americans at the 9/11 attack and their anger at bin Laden for perpetrating it, spilled over onto al Jazeera for carrying his face and his words.

Within weeks of 9/11, therefore, U.S. officials were trying to put pressure on the Government of Qatar to force al Jazeera to stop giving bin Ladin any publicity. In October 2001,U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell personally complained to the ruler of Qatar, Shaikh Hamid bin Khalifa, that al Jazeera was helping al Qaida by broadcasting Usama’s messages. But Shaikh Hamad refused to comply with Powell’s request, responding that it was a private TV station. This was technically true, but ignored the fact that it received essential funding from the Qatari government, which Shaikh Hamad could probably have used to affect programming if he had wanted to do so.

The taped messages from bin Ladin continued to be broadcast, to the annoyance of Washington officials. In April 2004 Colin Powell complained to the Qatari foreign minister that al Jazeera was inciting violence against Iraqis and US troops. [4] On July 14, 2004, Secretary Powell said “Al Jazeera does such a horrible job of presenting the news” and “takes every opportunity to slant the news”.[5] American officials in Doha continued to complain to the Qatari government but to no effect.

The Internet also attracted Washington’s attention as the Global War on Terror began, in particular because terrorist organizations like al Qaida began to devote their attention to it. Aside from placing occasional taped statements on television, terrorists found they did not have much success persuading the regular mainstream Arab media to carry their messages. They therefore began to rely heavily on special use internet websites and chat rooms, as well as email. Ayman al Zawahari and others see al Jazeera and other Arab satellite channels as hostile territory.[6]

Focus on Iraq

The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation of that country by US and allied forces, created a new situation for the United States with respect to Arab media, for two important reasons. First, since the U.S. government was the senior partner in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that was responsible for all aspects of governance in Iraq from March 2003 until June 2004, it had to make decisions directly affecting Iraqi media. Control of Iraqi media brought with it new responsibilities and the world was watching how the US handled them. Secondly, because it was primarily responsible for the invasion and occupation, the U.S. found itself with a major public diplomacy issue that would help define the U.S, image in the region and beyond.

The first issue – how to deal with the Iraqi media now that it controlled Iraq – presented a dilemma for the US government because on the one hand Washington felt some obligation to support freedom of the press that is a basic American tenet, but on the other hand, there was a natural desire to help shape Iraqi media in the post-Saddam era in a direction that was friendly to American interests. The American leadership in the CPA attempted to achieve both objectives. During the period when the U.S. was fully in charge in Iraq, between March 2003 and June 2004, the CPA established al Iraqiya Television and al Sabah daily newspaper, which were favored with U.S. government funding and access to information, in order to create media outlets that would be supportive of American views.

In order simultaneously to support freedom of the press, the CPA did allow the emergence of a broad array of all sorts of Iraqi-controlled media, which promptly sprang up all over the country. At the same time, the CPA did take action against some of the new Iraqi newspapers that it did not approve of. For example the CPA closed down al Hawza newspaper on March 28, 2004, causing a strongly negative Iraqi popular reaction. The CPA also tried to bring American ideas of regulation to Iraq by establishing an Iraqi media regulating body, the ICMC, modeled on the American Federal Communications Commission.

As for the second issue, the United States faced a new public diplomacy challenge raised by American invasion and occupation of Iraq because of the widespread Arab and other criticism of that decision. The US government watched as Arab and other media found fault with the invasion itself, and then after the fall of Saddam’s regime, increasingly criticized the occupation.

American official attention focused once again intently on Arab satellite television channels, in particular on al Jazeera. Washington officials quickly came to the conclusion that al Jazeera was presenting news and commentary on Iraq that Washington officials believed was deliberately biased against American interests.  Al Jazeera’s news coverage of events in Iraq was indeed different from the reporting of American journalists “embedded” with US forces who naturally covered the story from the American angle rather than the Iraqi angle, showing the suffering of Iraqi civilians rather than the heroism and suffering of American soldiers. Moreover, Arab commentators in media throughout the region strongly criticized U.S. policy in Iraq, and few defended it. American officials declined to appear on these talk shows, regarding them as stacked against American interests. There were some voices on these talk shows explaining the American point of view, but they were in a minority. [7]The absence of a consistent defense of American policy in Iraq meant that the overall impact was a negative one for American interests. But it was the news programs that American officials focused on and found most objectionable.

American authorities also took direct action against al Jazeera. During the period of direct U.S. occupation of Iraq, from March 2003 until June 2004, the Iraqi Governing Council shut down al Jazeera for broadcasting messages from Saddam Hussain, charging that they were provoking violence against the government and the Americans.  The Governing Council had been appointed by the American administrator, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, so it was widely believed in Iraq and elsewhere that Washington had requested the action against the TV channel. On April 27, 2004, when the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Jasim, visited Washington DC, Secretary Powell complained to him that al Jazeera was inciting violence in Iraq. [8] Then in August 2004, after Iraq had become sovereign, the Iraqi government shut al Jazeera down again for incitement of violence. The Iraqi government was still considered to be under substantial influence of the Americans, so its action gave the impression that Americans were acting against their professed support for press freedom.

The Qatari government however refused to rein in al Jazeera despite these actions against it.

U.S.-sponsored Broadcasting

After 9/11, as a response to the new Arab media, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) decided to establish two new international broadcasting stations. In 2002, the BBG created Radio Sawa, an Arabic language service. The BBG decided at the same time to abolish the VOA Arabic Service, which had started during World War II and had established itself as a credible source of news and information in the Arab world, although its signal was not audible everywhere.  VOA Arabic had offered a broad range of serious programming of interest to many different types of audience, and included considerable time devoted to news and public affairs material. [9] Radio Sawa, in contrast, consisted almost entirely of popular music aimed at a youth audience, with only a limited amount of news.  The BBG made arrangements with several Arab governments to allow it to broadcast on local FM stations, extending the U.S. radio broadcasting reach, but the new format seemed to be of interest to young people and few adults paid attention to it.

Then on February 14, 2004, less than a year after the invasion of Iraq, the BBG started al Hurra Television, an Arabic channel intended to reach Arab audiences in competition with al Jazeera and others. Arab viewers were not impressed with al Hurra. Many of them found the programs uninteresting and not competitive with the Arab-owned satellite television. They were surprised that the United States was unable to put on a more interesting TV program for Arab audiences.

BBG officials and their supporters argued that Radio Sawa and al Hurra Television were successful.   In February 2003 BBG Chairman Ken Tomlinson said, for example, that Secretary Powell’s speech on Iraq before the UN Security Council in the fall of 2002 would not have gotten fair coverage, but he was wrong because al Jazeera always covers such events live. [10] BBG also claimed that the Arab-controlled Arabic TV stations were highly restricted and that the new US-controlled al Hurra, which means “Freedom”, would bring more freedom of speech to the Arabic media scene.

Tomlinson also declared: “The concept of ‘debate shows’ has reached the Arab world today, but topics and parameters on these debate shows, this is what we are trying to expand.”[11] But this claim is also incorrect, as Marc Lynch has demonstrated. [12] Several Arab TV channels, led by al Jazeera, have promoted rather free discussion of many previously taboo subjects, and have generally allowed expression on all sides of an issue. Al Jazeera has given a platform to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, secularists and Islamicists, and critics of essentially every Arab government. Al Hurra talk shows have not presented such a broad array of views.

Private American commentators, many of whom have not actually watched al Jazeera, also have expressed negative views of its programming, reinforcing the American popular view. For example, the highly regarded New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the US ouster of Saddam “triggered the first conversations in the Arab world about reform”, but as Shibley Telhami has pointed out, this is not so.[13] And Marc Lynch has also demonstrated Friedman was wrong, citing programs on torture in Arab prisons, Arab brain drain, crisis in Arab education, sham presidential elections, women’s rights, the failure of Arab democracy, states of emergency, corruption. [14]

From the beginning, al Jazeera talk shows included guests with a very wide range of opinions. They included strong critics of Arab governments, corruption, lack of reform, etc. In 2002-03, they reflected widespread opposition to war that much of the American domestic media ignored, but allowed pro-war Americans like Douglas Feith, Danielle Pletka, and Patrick Clawson to speak out. In 2003-2006 it reported regularly on the Iraqi humanitarian cost of war which the US media have given little attention to.

In effect, al Jazeera and several other Arab TV channels reflected Arab public opinion in its diversity. On balance, United States policy has received considerably more negative than positive comment on Arab TV, but that generally reflects Arab public opinion.

As for Radio Sawa, its only positive achievement seems to be that it has increased the reach of U.S. government radio broadcasting in Arabic to more Arab audiences than VOA had, by means of the series of agreements that the BBG concluded to gain access to local FM frequencies. The major problem for VOA Arabic over the years was that its medium wave signal was not audible in many parts of the Arab world. V OA Arabic did have a good short wave signal but as a rule Arab audiences no longer listen to short wave, so this was ineffectual. And because of the technical problem of a lack of medium wave frequencies for VOA Arabic, which was only partially solved after Desert Storm with transmitters in Kuwait, the medium wave signal remained unheard by many Arab audiences. Radio Sawa took over all of the VOA Arabic frequencies, and added FM in some places, giving Radio Sawa some increased access to Arab audiences. But because the establishment of Radio Sawa meant that VOA Arabic went off the air, the net effect of the change was negative, because Radio Sawa’s program was much less appealing to a broad spectrum of listeners and had less serious content than VOA Arabic had.  The BBG does not sponsor studies comparing Radio Sawa to Arab-owned radio stations, but independent and informal monitoring and anecdotal information clearly indicate that the content of Radio Sawa is not interesting to large numbers of Arab listeners who used to tune in to VOA Arabic broadcasts.[15]

Al Hurra and Radio Sawa have failed because of their program content. Independent public opinion polls show that only 1% of Arab viewers regard al Hurra as their first choice among TV stations. Nevertheless the Bush administration continues to support it and in 2006 asked Congress to increase its budget by 13%.[16] It is however likely that Radio Sawa and al Hurra Television will survive because Congress wants to “do something” about what it sees as Arab media hostility.  Members of Congress generally are unaware of the fact that these new channels are ineffectual, because there is no independent oversight, and members themselves have no ability to monitor the content of these programs.  Officials and employees of the BBG have persuaded key members of Congress that these channels are a success, and that as led to repeated funding which is likely to continue.

The Pentagon’s Involvement

The U.S. Department of Defense has become involved in these matters, primarily as a result of the war on terror and the occupation of Iraq.

Pentagon officials were fully in charge of the planning and execution of the invasion of Iraq, deliberately excluding the State Department even from planning for the postwar occupation. [17]

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added his voice to Washington’s criticism of al Jazeera. In April 2004, he accused al Jazeera of “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting”, for example because he said it falsely accused U.S. forces of attacking civilians.[18] Later, as problems in Iraq continued, Rumsfeld made a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on February 17, 2006, in which he laid out what he regarded as a major Arab media problem for the Pentagon and the U.S. government. He started by quoting al Qaida deputy Ayman al Zawahari as saying “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of Muslims”. Rumsfeld’s concluded: “Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting  wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adopted.” He said, “The growing number of media outlets in many parts of the world have relatively immature standards and practices that all too often serve to inflame and distort, rather than to explain and inform. And while Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized this forum for many years and have successfully further poisoned the Muslim’s public view of the West, we in the government have barely begin to compete in reaching their audiences.” He said, “The standard U.S. Government public affairs operation was designed primarily to respond to individual requests for information. It …still operates for the most part on an eight-hour, five- or six-day week basis, while the world events and our enemies are operating 24/7 across every time zone. That’s an unacceptable dangerous deficiency.[19]

Rumsfeld’s comments indicate that he clearly does not have a solution to the Arab media problem that he described. Moreover, he seemed to be focusing primarily on television, despite the fact that the terrorists’ primary focus was on the Internet.

Pentagon representatives have however tried to fix what they see as an unfair media situation in Iraq. They hired an American private Company, the Lincoln Group, to write news stories and place them in Iraqi media by paying the editor to use them, and by keeping secret the fact that the U.S. Government was the sponsor of the story. This practice was revealed in a Los Angeles Times story on November 30, 2005, that said the Lincoln group had a $6 million contract to conduct secret media activities. American public reaction was negative. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in Dec 2005 found 72% of the American public was opposed DOD planting stories in the media. The Pentagon nevertheless clearly intends to stay involved in media relations. The press reported that the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element had undertaken a 5-year $300 million PR program aimed at the press.[20] In reaction to the initial negative American press stories, the Pentagon announced that it had started an investigation of it, and the White House and Congress also indicated their disapproval by asking for details of the program. Yet indications are that the Lincoln effort continued, quietly.

Secretary Rumsfeld has not denounced the practice of paying for secret placement in foreign media, but there are several problems with it. First, it creates the precedent of payment for placement which undermines normal placement activities of State Department Public Affairs officers. Secondly, it drives the price up when he practice becomes known, as it inevitably does. Third, it undermines the principle of a free press that we espouse, inviting the accusation that Americans follow a double standard.

What are the Pentagon’s plans for the future? In his February 2006 speech, Secretary Rumsfeld indicated that although he does not know what the solution is to the problem of Arab media as he defined it, he expects the Pentagon to remain involved in trying to deal with it. DOD has very substantial financial and manpower resources that can be devoted to the issue, so if Rumsfeld the President want the Pentagon to continue to play a key role, it will do so.

The Belated Effort at State

Although the State Department has since 1999 been the U.S. government agency officially charged with carrying out the functions of public diplomacy, including managing relations with Arab and other foreign media, its effort did not expand at first after 9/11 despite the attention many members of Congress and others paid to the problem of Arab media. The end of the Cold War had led to a decline in public diplomacy funding and staffing, and the 1999 USIA-State merger had failed to create the more effective public diplomacy performance that its advocates had expected. After 9/11, the White House still showed little interest in energizing public diplomacy for another four years, until late 2005 when President Bush appointed his long time trusted advisor Karen Hughes to be Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department.

As soon as Karen Hughes took over her new responsibilities, it became clear that she at least recognized problems she faced. [21] In less than one year in that position, she has made some positive changes.

First, she encouraged U.S. government officials to appear on al Jazeera and other Arab satellite television programs, reversing a defacto boycott that had been in effect since 9/11. She appeared on al Jazeera herself and then made a highly publicized visit to that station’s headquarters in Qatar. In making these approaches to Arab satellite television, she showed that she recognized the importance of that medium in reaching Arab audiences, and she tacitly acknowledges that it is more productive to work with it rather than trying to demonize it and boycott it.

Secondly, in early 2006, Karen Hughes established a Rapid Reaction Unit at the State Department to monitor foreign media on a 24/7 basis and report on it quickly to senior policy makers in the government. The function of monitoring foreign media is one that for decades USIA had managed, using field officers in embassies all over the world, and staffs in Washington to process the reports. This function fell into neglect after the end of the Cold War.  The RRU is separate from and parallel to the similar operations at DOD and CIA, but there is some coordination between these three agencies. State’s RRU receives the Rendon reports on foreign media that the Pentagon produces, and personnel from the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) also work with RRU staff. [22]

Third, Karen Hughes has encouraged an effort by the public diplomacy staff in the State Department’s Near East Bureau in Washington to reach out to Arab media by carrying out an aggressive program of newspaper interviews and appearances on Arab television, as well as on al Hurra and Radio Sawa. This new Arab Media Outreach program has had some success in raising the profile of American officials in Arab media, and using them as a platform for the presentation of American views.

Fourth, Karen Hughes herself has traveled several times to the Arab world where she has engaged in discussions with a variety of people, and then reported back to President Bush on key elements in foreign opinion on America and its policies.

Fifth, Karen Hughes and her deputy Dina Powell have increased the programming Arab journalists as exchange visitors. They created a “Murrow Journalism Fellowship” program that in April 2006 brought 130 to the United States, half of them from the Arab world, where they learned about American journalism and other aspects of American life.  They have also supported the increase in foreign language study for Americans including Arabic

Finally, the State Department also has made an effort to make use of the Internet, creating a web site based in Washington, and web sites at individual embassies around the world, including in the Arab countries. Also, some enterprising embassy public affairs officers have used text messaging and other new communication techniques to reach their target audiences with policy statements and official analyses.[23]

Problems remain

There are several problems that remain in the U.S. government’s handling of the new Arab media.

First of all, by most accounts, the newly created broadcasting stations, Radio Sawa and al Hurra Television, have failed in their stated purpose to provide credible competition for the new Arab media. The problem is not that they are sponsored by the U.S. Government, since Arab audiences are used to listening to government-sponsored radio and watching government-sponsored television, and they are interested in these media while taking the sponsor’s bias into account. The central problem for Radio Sawa and al Hurra Television is than neither one provides the content that is of a high standard and level of interest to appeal to an Arab audience bombarded every day with many media choices.  Unless the content of these US-sponsored stations improves, the millions of dollars spent on them every year will continue to be wasted.

Secondly, recent developments have left the U.S. government’s handling of the new media in the Arab world in an uncoordinated and haphazard fashion.  The 1999 legislation that abolished USIA and in effect made the Broadcasting Board of governors independent of any policy guidance from the State Department, created two quite separate government agencies – the BBG and State –  that both try to deal with the new Arab media but independently of each other.  In addition, the fact that the Pentagon has taken the lead in the war and occupation of Iraq, and that the Secretary of Defense has both the funding and the determination to make DOD active in dealing with Arab media, have created a situation in which the Pentagon and the State Department are conducting separate and parallel efforts with regard to these media.  Adding to the confusion, the CIA continues to monitor Arab media as it has done for decades through FBIS. There is some interchange and communication along these separate agencies, but little real coordination. The comments of the Secretary of Defense on these matters reveal little inclination to give up the key role his Department has assumed since 9/11 in dealing with Arab media.

Third, there remains some reluctance on the part of U.S. officials to deal directly with some of the new Arab media such as al Jazeera. The efforts of Karen Hughes to reverse the de facto boycott of certain Arab television channels has been a useful step in the right direction, but many U.S. officials still regard the new Arab media as the enemy to be boycotted, and that is a counter-productive attitude. Moreover, laws passed by Congress prohibiting American citizens from any contact with organizations designated by the U.S. Government as terrorist, also inhibit effective dealing with the new Arab media. For example since the Al Manar Television in Lebanon is owned and operated by Hizbollah, and Hizbollah is considered by the U.S. government (but not by the Lebanese government) as a terrorist organization, American officials and private citizens are not allowed to appear on al Manar. This TV station has consistently slanted its news and commentary in an anti-American direction, but because of U.S. law, Americans cannot present American views on it even if they are invited to do so. We deny ourselves the opportunity to present our views on this important channel of the new Arab media.

Finally, behind these bureaucratic problems is one of the attitude of the U.S. government including those at the top. Marc Lynch in his excellent book has it right when he says that President Bush has treated the Arab public sphere “either as an enemy to be defeated (in a “war of ideas”) or as an object to be manipulated (via public relations).” As Lynch says, “Between the harsh attacks on the Arab satellite stations and its decision to launch an Arabic language satellite station (al Hurra)  in order to have its own (controllable) voice in the Arab arena, American policy has seemed designed to marginalize and weaken the Arab public sphere as an effective political voice. But these policies have largely failed.”  Instead, Lynch says, the US should “enter more directly into the Arab public sphere and engage with it in a real dialogue, relying on reasoned argument rather than power.” He points out that the Arabs are opinionated, “well-informed and proud of their identity” and they tend to be offended by American propaganda and highly suspicious of American motives.” He adds: “By treating them as enemies the United States risks not only losing a powerful ally for change, but also pushes these influential voices into a hostile camp. [24]


The new Arab media are a fact of life that the U.S. Government finds in some respects unfriendly but they cannot be wished away or forced to disappear by ignoring them. There are, however, some steps that could be taken to improve the way the U.S. government deals with the new Arab media. Following are briefly stated suggestions, that require no great elaboration because the rationale for them should have emerged from the above discussion.

First, the VOA Arabic service should be revived.

Secondly, the program content of Radio Sawa and al Hurra Television should be substantially improved, or these stations should be abolished. Improvement could best be started by the appointment of an independent panel of outside experts, made up of native speakers of Arabic who know broadcasting and know both America and the Arab world, who would review program content and make suggested changes.

Third, the public diplomacy budget of the State department should be substantially increased, and its mandate to take the lead in public diplomacy matters should be reconfirmed. At the same time, the DOD effort to deal with Arab media should be fully coordinated with the State Department, and parts of it transferred to State as appropriate.

Finally, as a general proposition, support should be given the efforts of Undersecretary Karen Hughes, because in less than one year she has managed to shift the emphasis of the Bush administration from unilateralism to dialogue, from boycott of the new Arab media to engagement. Only by treating the new Arab media with respect and trying to make use of it to engage Arab audiences in a discussion of matters of mutual interest, will the United States be able to deal with them successfully.

Notes & References

[1] For details, see William A. Rugh, Arab Mass Media, Praeger/Greenwood, 2004

[2] Arab Mass Media, chapters 10 and 11

[3] William A. Rugh, American Encounters with Arabs: the “soft power” of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East, Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood, 2006, pp.144-46

[4] Arab Mass Media, pp.233-34

[5] Quoted by Marc Lynch, “America and the Arab Media Environment”,  in William A. Rugh, Ed., Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds Through Public Diplomacy, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, 2004, p.98

[6] Abu Aardvark 2/17/06

[7] This author and other Americans were invited to appear often on al Jazeera and other Arab satellite channels in the months following 9/11, because their editors wanted to include an American point of view in their discussion programs.

[8] American Encounters with Arabs, p.178

[9] For details, see Alan Heil Jr., “The History of VOA Arabic”, in Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds, pp.49-68

[10] Lynch in Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds, pp.97-98

[11] Ken Tomlinson, testimony before the SFRC, 108th congress, 2nd session, 4/29/2004, quoted by Lynch, in William Rugh, Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds, p.92

[12] Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006

[13] Shibley Telhami, The Stakes, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002. p.95

[14] Marc Lynch, in William Rugh, Ed., Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds

[15] Information from various informed observers

[16] AbuAardvark,com website 2/14/06, citing a Zogby poll.

[17] Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: the Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, New York: Pantheon, 2006, pp.147-48 and 159

[18] LAT and Washington Times, 4/28/04, and William A. Rugh in Global Media Journal, fall 2004

[19] Donald Rumsfeld speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), New York, 2/17/2006

[20] USA Today 3/23/06

[21] See her HIRC testimony 11/10/05, her CFR speech 5/10/06, and her NPR interview 3/28/06

[22] Interview with RRU director, May 2006

[23] For example, the PAO at the U.S. embassy in Cairo set up a system by which he uses text messaging to alert key target audience members when a significant new policy statement has come out of Washington.

[24] Marc Lynch, Voices, p.250-51

All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Author.

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