Art and Entertainment

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American Media Remains Popular Overseas, Though the United States Does Not

December 25, 2008 01:02 PM
by Anne Szustek
Though mainstream American movies and television shows continue to entertain audiences overseas, State Department media initiatives have failed to connect.

Reconciling American Media With American Image

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President-elect Barack Obama plans to give a speech in a major city within the Islamic world, possibly within the first 100 days of his presidency. Though the plan is still in its early stages, Obama has made it clear that one focus of the trip is diplomatic fence-mending. The cornerstone speech of the journey would present “a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,” Obama said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, cited by The Christian Science Monitor.

The president-elect also plans to reiterate his no-tolerance of terrorism and work toward instilling a new appreciation of Western values.

As on a bevy of other policy platforms, the Obama administration has a Herculean task in improving America’s image overseas. According to data collected before the 2008 election by Steven Kull, the director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, and published by the International Herald Tribune, “fewer than half of those polled in 22 foreign countries—46 percent—said relations between the United States and the world would improve under a President Obama,” writes the paper.

Kull told the International Herald Tribune, “It’s not just about not being Bush, and that there will be a clean slate. There were all these underlying issues that were amplified during the Bush era, and they are not simply going back in the trunk.”

But as much of the world remains askance in its views toward U.S. foreign policy, they still want their MTV. Viacom’s launch of MTV Arabia in autumn 2007 has proven successful in its target market, while taking local cultural sensitivities into account. And American programs such as the tabloid news show “Inside Edition,” Oprah Winfrey’s top talk show and “8 Simple Rules,” a sitcom airing on ABC, are getting a fresh wave of viewers by way of the MBC family of satellite networks, beamed from Saudi Arabia across the Arabic-speaking world.

“There’s an acute understanding of the difference between the U.S. government and the American people,” Tufts University assistant anthropology professor Amahl Bishara told the International Herald Tribune. “And they look at U.S. entertainment as just that, entertainment.” Bishara spent two years on the West Bank researching media impact.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration tried to wield “soft power” by disseminating American movies and television in order to sway Middle Eastern opinion into the U.S. camp.

Background: Recent State Department public diplomacy initiatives

Hilary Rosen, former chair of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the International Herald Tribune that Karl Rove and other top White House administrators were after Hollywood to put out entertainment featuring the party line.

“They wanted the music industry, the movie industry, the TV industry to produce propaganda,” she told the paper. Meanwhile, the feds were disseminating their message via in-house mouthpieces.

In mid-2003, the State Department unveiled an Arabic-language magazine entitled Hi magazine. Written in English and translated into Arabic by Arab-Americans, the $4.5 million project was pitched at young Arab adults aged 18 to 25, and retailed for about $2 on newsstands across the Arabian Peninsula. Its editorial coverage included lighthearted topics such as Internet dating and yoga.

Elie Khoury, the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi Levant, the advertising agency behind the local promotional efforts, was quoted by NPR in 2005 as saying, “It's a quality youth-targeting magazine that opens a door of dialogue... that is without doubt an American effort, but it's certainly not a propaganda thing.”

In the early months of its distribution, the publication was met with mixed reviews by its target audience. "I would be more interested if the magazine talked about why Americans support Israel or why they did what they did in Iraq,” 20-year-old Beiruti Hassan Moustafa was quoted by NPR. His friend, Ahmad Jabbouri, added that most Arabs were already enamored with Americans and U.S. pop culture; the U.S. government was the problem.

Professional media critics in the Middle East tended to be more scathing of the publication. Soon after Hi magazine came out, Egyptian English-language paper Al-Ahram Weekly wrote, "Many critics think the magazine is too naive to be anything other than an exercise in brainwashing," quoted by Agence France-Presse and cited by Eccentric Star, a blog written by a former officer for the U.S. Information Agency, now the public diplomacy wing of the State Department.

In tandem with a call for the State Department to review the magazine’s “effectiveness,” according to a statement, the U.S. government ceased publication of Hi in late 2005, by which time it had a monthly circulation rate of 55,000 in 18 countries.

This is not the only recent batch of U.S. policy PR in the form of media outlets. Radio Sawa and television network Al-Hurra have been chastised as recent tax dollar boondoggles.

Al-Hurra, which means “The Free One” in Arabic, was conceived as a competitor to established Arabic-language news networks such as Al-Jazeera. Quick to get the $63 million-a-year project up and running, the U.S. government apparently did little due diligence on Al-Hurra’s Middle Eastern journalists, who were apparently unaware of the station’s pro-U.S. bent.

Given that no one at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Al-Hurra’s management body, spoke Arabic, it escaped them that the network was broadcasting taxpayer-funded terrorist messages including, as ABC reported in May 2007, “in December 2006 a 68-minute call to arms against Israelis by a senior figure of the terrorist group Hezbollah; deferential coverage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference; and a factually flawed piece on a splinter group of Orthodox Jews who oppose the state of Israel.”

BBG member Joaquin Blaya told Congress that the goal of the station was never to “provide an open, live microphone to terrorists," and that now the station has Arabic-speaking editors and monitors to vet programming.

The U. S. government realizes that its public diplomacy efforts could use some honing.

A bipartisan congressional panel, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, released a June 2008 report entitled, “Getting the People Part Right.” The report mentioned that the federal government could “significantly enhance the quality and effectiveness of our nation’s outreach to foreign publics by recruiting for the public diplomacy career track in a more focused way.”

Related Topic: Entertainment vs. foreign relations

The television drama “24,” starring Kiefer Sutherland and featuring “real-time” accounts of U.S. government stake-outs on terrorist operations, has been wildly popular in Turkey. However, season four was temporarily suspended. Why? According to The Washington Post, “the terrorists intent on destroying America were Turks.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish movie, “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” was released there in 2006. In the movie, U.S. soldiers harvest organs from Iraqi prisoners, shoot children at point-blank range and show complete disrespect for Turkish foreign policy.

As The Washington Post observed, “That two NATO allies that often speak of mutual respect regard each other so darkly on-screen says a good deal about the uneasy state of relations between Turkey and the United States.”
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