Is America getting serious about public diplomacy? David Frum, a long-time critic of the Bushies' lackadaisical PR effort, applauds Karen Hughes' appointment as the new information czar, but wonders how deep the reforms will go. It seems to me that, although he's talking about the Middle East, the problem is almost as serious in Europe. "Active misrepresentation", as he puts it, isn't exactly the preserve of Al Jazeera:

Communications professionals in the Western world take for granted a certain kind of media infrastructure. Politicians speak knowing that their message will be repeated more or less as it is delivered. Though the media may be swayed by unconscious biases, a politician does not have to worry about deliberate deceit or active misrepresentation.

So nothing could be more natural--more unavoidable almost--for an American media profession than to think of her job as speaking through the media. That is precisely how Hughes did think when she was running America's international media campaign from the White House from 9/11 until her departure in 2003. She would search out attractive, presentable Americans of Arab or Muslim background and send them on to al-Jazeera or al-Arabiyya, or on overseas speaking tours to make the case that America was not hostile to Islam, was not a country of hedonistic infidels, etc.

In 2002 and 2003, that approach failed, and failed badly. In the Middle East, most important indigenous television broadcasters are actively managed agencies of governments. (Including, in the case of the new satellite station al-Hurra, the U.S. government.) The media in this part of the world are not more or less neutral channels of communication. They are weapons in an undeclared war. They are not there to be used by the West. They are there to be used against the West.

Instead of trying to speak through the local media, an effective communications strategy in the Middle East has to find ways to speak past them. The locals know that. When Lebanese patriots bring hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators into the streets to demand that Syria free their country, they are sending a message that not even al-Jazeera can pervert.

It is hazardous in today's Middle East to equate communication with words. This is a region in which words have been systematically corrupted, where dictatorship is called "nationalism," where stealing is called "socialism," and where murder is called "martyrdom."

|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2005/03/war-of-words-is-america-getting.html|||3/17/2005 10:00:00 am|||||||||