Radio, Free Us?

As a journalism student who had a certain wariness of media agendas beaten into her for the past four years, I cannot help but approach the idea of public diplomacy with caution.  In light of the rough U.S. approach to foreign policy during the last eight years–oh, heck, the last fifty years–anything that rings of “diplomacy” initially piques my interest. I’m disgusted by the history of wars (legal, proxy and otherwise) and subversive military funding.  I am young, and I want another way.

However, words can be just as dangerous as weapons.

Public diplomacy, through the form of radio broadcasts, carries the potential for peacefully winning the respect, if not the acceptance, of populations beyond our borders.  A 2005 article in the Columbia Journalism Review–as well as our class discussion last week–indicates that  Voice of America may come as close to careful journalism as a public diplomacy program possibly can.  In the CJR article, Corey Pein writes,

The thousand-strong staff of the Voice includes serious journalists who are emphatic about the agency’s code, which mandates editorial independence and fair treatment for all points of view. Its advocates see a straightforward journalistic approach as the best possible demonstration of American values in a time when the nation’s popularity is slipping around the world.

On some level, the extent of VOA’s objectivity and story variability must be questioned.  After all, public diplomacy is a euphemism for propaganda. However, Pein also argues that VOA is better than the strain of public diplomacy emerging under the Bush administration.  Even as the VOA English and Arabic programs are being cut, new programs are garnering support from government funding. In particular, Pein focuses on Radio Sawa and Al Hurra. According to critics, the programming of these two stations relies heavily on pop music and shameless propaganda.  While Arab listeners certainly understood the source of VOA’s Arabic program, CJR reports that they find the two new stations unbearably obvious in their propaganda:

Six months after [Al Hurra’s] launch, Tariq Al Humayd, the editor of the pan-Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat, which has shown more sympathy to America’s presence in the region than others, lamented Al Hurra’s sorry state: “We hoped that Al Hurra would emerge as the voice of reason and a source of information and investigative reports at the level of those produced by the U.S. media. The last thing we expected was that the United States would try to sell us its bad goods.” Mamoun Fandy argues that Al Hurra undercuts America’s proclaimed hopes for the Middle East by failing to promote free speech and women’s rights.

This type of public diplomacy will get us nowhere if it continues to be a major part of foreign policy during the next four years. It will only emphasis the perception of the U.S. as a hypocritical occupier, which uses free speech and democracy as a guise for imperialism. That won’t win us any international buddies.

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