A True American Quagmire

I want to contrast two examples of the use of media in the war on terror. The first is a Washington Post article about the Voice of America by Robert R. Reilly, its former director, complaining that the VOA Broadcasting Board of Governors have pursued a policy of dropping content and replaceing it with pop music. The second is from the Wall Street Journal about how a Marine officer requested the development of a networked electronic fingerprint recording device similar to those used by US police forces for use in Iraq on Dec 15 and how it was developed and delivered to him personally in Iraq by Jan 15. Due to the length of the Reilly story, the second story will have to wait for Wednesday’s post.

So lets start by hearing what Reilly, who was a Bush nominee, has to say about his issue with his Board.

We did not fight communism with pop music. In fact, during the Cold War, America used its government media institutions to broadcast its ideas and beliefs. So why are we not refashioning those successful broadcast strategies and trying to spread our ideas in the Muslim world, the breeding ground of much of the world’s terrorist threats?

Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have shared their answer: Radio Sawa’s progenitor, media mogul Norman Pattiz, was still serving his Clinton-appointed term in 2002 when he told the New Yorker that “it was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall.” (Not Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, of course.) President Bush’s appointees did not improve the board’s outlook. In October 2002, Ken Tomlinson, then the board’s new chairman, approvingly quoted his son as saying Spears’s music “represents the sounds of freedom.” It seems that the board transformed the “war of ideas” into the battle of the bands.

Both Board members are interesting characters. Pattiz’s Wikipedia article is here and Tomlinson’s here. Pattiz is the founder of Westwood One, a successful commercial radio programming company, and Tomlinson was himself a VOA director in the eighties and also had a long career with the Readers Digest finishing up as editor in chief. Tomlinson is also a highly controversial figure because of his claims that Public Broadcasting in the US has a liberal bias and the follow up actions he took while on the PBS board from which he resigned in 2004 . His conduct while chairman of the BBG has also come under Congressional investigation for misuse of funds and for improperly hiring friends, but he remains in his position.

Reilly is nothing if not consistent in his vision for the VOA. Here he is in a 2002 Insight interview on the history of the VOA and his vision for it in the War on terror.

The VOA was a creature of World War II, when it was realized that conveying accurate and objective news about U.S. policies and the character of the American people was an indispensable part of the war effort. After the hot war, it became equally indispensable in the war of ideas that ensued during the Cold War.

Insight: But now the Cold War is over, and we have a completely different international community than before. Why is VOA relevant now, or is it more relevant?

RRR: The decade following the end of the Cold War saw a steady diminution in the perceived capabilities of international broadcasting. There was an attitude: What do we need this for anymore? There are probably 400 fewer people here at VOA now as a result of steady erosion. I think 9/11 awakened people in the U.S. government, in the U.S. Congress and in the public-policy field in general, to the absolute necessity of our international broadcasting.

Insight: Does that necessity include a role for VOA in fighting terrorism?

RRR: Let’s get specific. During the fighting in Afghanistan, it was vital for the Afghan people to know what U.S. policy was. Even the Taliban were relying upon VOA to find out what our policy was, to hear an articulation of what U.S. war goals there were. Since 9/11 we’ve increased the number of broadcast hours in the local languages, Pashto and Dari, to three hours each per day; in Farsi for Iran to six hours a day, in Urdu for Pakistan to three hours, to one hour in Uzbek and up to 12 hours in Arabic. It was important not just for the people of Afghanistan to understand those goals, but all the people of central Asia, to say nothing of Russia and our allies who were helping us in a wide variety of ways. It’s our responsibility at VOA, through our TV, radio and Internet programs, to tell the full truth about the United States.

Doing a bit more digging I find a Jan 2003 PBS interview with Pattiz who puts forward his side of the story on Radio Sawa, which is specifically the youth oriented Arabic broadcasting service founded by Pattiz and with which Reilly takes issue:

TERENCE SMITH: Of course, there’s a great range of cultural traditions in the areas in which you’re broadcasting — say on the issues of marriage and dating. How do you bridge all that?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, a lot of it is by having dialogue with our listeners. We have a feature which we have begun recently, called “Sawa Chat,” where we let listeners as questions and then we let people in the street answer those questions.

We have a saying on Radio Sawa, which is “You listen to us and we’ll listen to you.”

We’re very different than the way U.S. international broadcasting has been traditionally. We don’t talk at our audience. We want to create dialogue with our audience, and we want our audience to become an integral part of the radio station listening experience — which is how radio is most effective and most valuable wherever it’s broadcast around the globe.

He goes on the say that they do two 5 to 10 minute newscasts per hour and that they are definitely targeting the youth market. Pattiz is clearly applying successful commercial approaches with Radio Sawa. Most of the figures Pattiz cites come from the Amman Jordan station which Reilly takes on directly in his recent Washington Post piece this way:

The BBG has achieved part of its objective in gaining large youth audiences in some areas of the Middle East, such as in Amman, Jordan, where it has an FM transmitter. But as the Jordanian journalist Jamil Nimri told me: “Radio Sawa is fun, but it’s irrelevant.” We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music, so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way? The condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the audience that we should wish to influence the most — those who think.

As I kept digging it emerges that this controversy is not just a personal dispute, but a deep rooted institutional conflict. This 2004 article from the Washington Post talks about the Inspector General’s report on Radio Sawa:

Radio Sawa, an Arab-language pop music and news station funded by the U.S. government and touted by the Bush administration as a success in reaching out to the Arab world, has failed to meet its mandate of promoting democracy and pro-American attitudes, according to a draft report prepared by the State Department’s inspector general.

The report credited Radio Sawa with attracting a large audience in key Middle East countries but said the station, which has an annual budget of $22 million, has been so preoccupied with building an audience through its music that it has failed to adequately measure whether it is influencing minds.

But the plot thickens:

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has vehemently protested the report, questioning its methodology and assumptions in a 49-page pre-publication rebuttal. The report, based on extensive interviews in Washington and the Middle East with U.S. officials and public diplomacy experts, was scheduled to be published in August, but publication has been repeatedly delayed.

So Reilly’s recent article can be seen as just a small incident in an ongoing bureaucratic battle. That battle doesn’t even follow party lines. The Bush administration is claiming success for an initiative started by a Clinton appointee and backed by its own appointee, Tomlinson, but attacked by another Administration appointee – Robert R. Reilly. Report and counter report – neither published – both leaked. So what have we got? A classic inside the beltway mess. We have an ideological activist in Tomlinson in a political cat fight with Democratic congressmen which is largely irrelevant to the issue of how the VOA should operate and a perfectly valid disagreement over what should be the guiding vision for the VOA being carried on by means of leak and counter leak. Now there may be a political aspect to this conflict that I have missed but the basic difference is between Pattiz’s contemporary vision for the VOA and Reilly’s traditional vision.

My reaction as a media specialist is that these two visions of the role of the VOA are not mutually exclusive. Reilly has the traditional one going right back to 1942 of using the radio as a tool in the information war – or as public diplomacy as it is formally called. As a media specialist I think that vision is still as valid in an ideological war against radical Islam as it was in the ideological wars against Communism and Fascism. The VOA is not just a commercial radio service, but that said I see nothing wrong in trying new approaches. It isn’t like radio hasn’t changed since 1942. In WW2, as I can remember clearly, we sat around the radio listening the Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London. The radio was the center of our experience of the war. I can even remember hearing the sound of explosions in the background of Murrow’s riveting reporting. But, as we all know TV has replaced radio as the primary broadcast news medium, and trying alternative approaches that have worked with radio is a perfectly logical thing to do. To Pattiz’s credit he also founded an Arabic TV initiative – al Hurra – to compete with al Jazeera.

What I think may have gone wrong is that a youth oriented service has driven out the more serious traditional informational broadcasting that the VOA is famous for. Furthermore, given that the US has not done well in the information war I don’t think it wasteful or redundant to consider doing both. I wouldn’t agree that radio Sawa is irrelevant – I think it is a long term investment in Arab youth which may or may not need improvement. But it also seems to me that Reilly is quite correct in saying that it shouldn’t be America’s only Arab or Farsi radio service.

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