Thursday, April 07, 2005

American Media Blitz

Baghdad Burning is my favorite Iraqi blog. It is the creation of an Iraqi computer scientist who calls herself 'Riverbend'. This is one of her recent entries.

BAGHDAD, April 3, 2005 -- You wake up in the morning. Brush your teeth. Splash the sleep out of your eyes and head for the kitchen for a cup of coffee or tea and whatever is available for breakfast.

You wander to the living room and search for the remote control. It is in its usual place -- stuck inexplicably between the sofa cushions. You turn on the television and stand there flipping from one channel to the other, looking for a news brief or something that will sum up what happened during those six hours you slept. You finally settle on the pleasant face on the screen -- the big hair, bright power suit, capped teeth and colorful talons -- blandly reading the news. The anchoress is Julie Chan. The program is CBS's The Early Show (Live from Fifth Avenue!).

Guess the nationality of the viewer above. Three guesses. American? No. Canadian? No. British? Japanese? Australian? No, no and no. The viewer is Iraqi… or Jordanian… or Lebanese… or Syrian… or Saudi… or Kuwaiti… or… but you get the picture.

Two years ago, the major part of the war in Iraq was all about bombarding us with smart bombs and high-tech missiles. Now there's a different sort of war -- or perhaps it's just another phase of the same war. Now we're being assailed with American media. It's everywhere all at once.

It began with radio stations like Voice of America which we could access even before the war. After the war, there were other radio stations -- ones with mechanical voices that told us to put down our weapons and remain inside our homes, ones that fed us American news in an Iraqi dialect and ones that just played music. With satellite access we are constantly listening to American music and watching American sitcoms and movies. To be fair -- it's not just Iraq that is being targeted -- it's the whole region and it's all being done very cleverly.

Al-Hurra, the purported channel of freedom, is the American gift to the Arab world. What they do is show us translated documentaries about certain historical events (American documentaries) or about movie stars (American stars) or vacation spots. Throughout this, there are Arab anchors giving us the news (which is like watching Fox in Arabic). It's news about the Arab world with the American twist.

Our new "national" channels are a joke. One of the most amusing, in a gruesome sort of way, is Al-Iraqiya. It's said to be American sponsored but the attitude is decidedly pro-Iran, anti-Sunni. There's a program where they parade 'terrorists' on screen for us to see in an attempt to show us that our National Guard are not only good at raiding homes and harassing people in the streets. The funny thing about the terrorists is that the majority of them have "Sunni" names like Omar and Othman, etc. They admit to doing things such as having sexual intercourse in mosques and raping women and the whole show is disgusting. Iraqis don't believe it because it's so obviously produced to support the American definition of the Iraqi, Sunni, Islamic fanatic that it is embarrassing. Couldn't the PSYOPS people come up with anything more subtle?

Then you have the whole MBC collection. MBC is actually financed by Saudi Arabia, but based in Dubai, as far as I know. They have several different channels. It started out with the original MBC which was a mainly Arabic channel that was harmless enough. It showed some talk shows, debates and Egyptian movies with an occasional program on music or style.

Then we were introduced to MBC's Al-Arabia -- a news channel which was meant to be the Saudi antidote to Al-Jazeera. Simultaneously, we were accessing MBC's Channel 2, which is a channel that shows only English movies and programs. The programs varied from talk shows like Oprah, to sitcoms like Friends, Third Rock from the Sun and Seinfeld. Earlier this year, the MBC did a mystifying thing. They announced that Channel 2 was going to be made a 24-hour movie channel which would show all sorts of movies -- old Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, and newer movies like "A Beautiful Mind", etc. The programs and sitcoms would be transferred to the new MBC Channel 4.

Personally, I was pleased with the change at first. I'm not big on movies and it was nice to know our favorite sitcoms and programs would all be accessible on one channel without the annoyance of two-hour movies. I could turn on Channel 4 at any time and expect to find something interesting or humorous that would end within 30-60 minutes.

The first time I saw 60 Minutes on MBC 4, it didn't occur to me that something was wrong. I can't remember what the discussion was, but I remember being vaguely interested and somewhat mystified at why we were getting 60 Minutes. I soon found out that it wasn't just 60 Minutes at night: It was Good Morning, America in the morning, 20/20 in the evening, 60 Minutes, 48-Hours, Inside Edition, The Early Show… it was a constant barrage of American media. The chipper voice in Arabic tells us, "So you can watch what *they* watch!" *They* apparently being millions of Americans.

The schedule on MBC's Channel 4 goes something like this:

9 am - CBS Evening News 9:30 am - CBS The Early Show 10:45 am - The Days of Our Lives 11:20 am - Wheel of Fortune 11:45 am - Jeopardy 12:05 pm - A re-run of whatever was on the night before - 20/20, Inside Edition, etc.

And the programming continues…

I've been enchanted with the shows these last few weeks. The thing that strikes me most is the fact that the news is so… clean. It's like hospital food. It's all organized and disinfected. Everything is partitioned and you can feel how it has been doled out carefully with extreme attention to the portions -- 2 minutes on women's rights in Afghanistan, 1 minute on training troops in Iraq and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reportages are upbeat and somewhat cheerful, and the anchor person manages to look properly concerned and completely uncaring all at once.

About a month ago, we were treated to an interview on 20/20 with Sabrina Harman -- the witch in some of the Abu Ghraib pictures. You know -- the one smiling over faceless, naked Iraqis piled up to make a human pyramid. Elizabeth Vargus was doing the interview and the whole show was revolting. They were trying to portray Sabrina as an innocent who was caught up in military orders and fear of higher-ranking officers. The show went on and on about how American troops never really got seminars on Geneva Conventions (like one needs to be taught humanity) and how poor Sabrina was being made a scapegoat. They showed the restaurant where she worked before the war and how everyone thought she was "such a nice person" who couldn't hurt a fly!

We sat there watching like we were a part of another world, in another galaxy. I've always sensed from the various websites that American mainstream news is far-removed from reality -- I just didn't know how far. Everything is so tame and simplified. Everyone is so sincere.

Furthermore, I don't understand the world's fascination with reality shows. Survivor, The Bachelor, Murder in Small Town X, Faking It, The Contender… it's endless. Is life so boring that people need to watch the conjured up lives of others?

I have a suggestion of my own for a reality show. Take 15 Bush supporters and throw them in a house in the suburbs of, say, Falloojeh for at least 14 days. We could watch them cope with the water problems, the lack of electricity, the check points, the raids, the Iraqi National Guard, the bombings, and -- oh yeah -- the 'insurgents'. We could watch their house bombed to the ground and their few belongings crushed under the weight of cement and brick or simply burned or riddled with bullets. We could see them try to rebuild their life with their bare hands (and the equivalent of $150)…

I'd not only watch *that* reality show, I'd tape every episode.


By William Fisher

As Karen Hughes prepares for her Senate confirmation hearing to be the czarina of America’s effort to repair its tarnished image abroad, she would do well to heed the advice of Rami G. Khouri.

Rami Khouri is a world-class thinker. He is the former Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, and now a syndicated columnist. Khouri advises eight guideposts to the soon-to-be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy: Style, credibility, consistency, motive, context, legitimacy, militarism, and relevance.

Here’s what he means.

Style: "Washington's manner is often aggressive and threatening. It uses sanctions and the military and unilaterally lays down the law that others must follow or else they will be considered enemies and thus liable to regime change. People don't like to be bullied or threatened, even if change would be for their own good.”

Credibility: “The U.S. track record has hurt, angered or offended most people in the Middle East. By primarily backing Arab dictators and autocrats or supporting the Israeli position on key issues of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, credibility has been lost. The priority issue for most Arabs -- whether Palestinians, Iraqis or others -- is freedom from foreign occupation and subjugation. If Washington uses war and pressure tactics to implement United Nations resolutions in Lebanon and Iraq but does nothing parallel to implement U.N. resolutions calling for the freedom of Palestinians from Israeli occupation, it will continue to be greeted with disdainful guffaws in most of the Middle East.”

Consistency: “The United States could have promoted freedom and democracy in Iraq without waging war and spending $300 billion, getting more than 1,500 Americans killed and 10,000 injured (and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis killed) and creating a massive anti-American backlash throughout the world. It could better promote democracy and rally Arab democrats by telling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali that being president without any meaningful legal opposition for more than 20 years is long enough. The U.S. could support term limits for Arab presidents.”

Motive: “Perpetually changing the motive for the war in Iraq hurts American credibility. We've been told that invading Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, links with Al Qaeda, imminent threats to the United States, homegrown brutality against the Iraqi people, stopping threats to neighbors and, now, spreading freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. Some of these rationales may one day prove to be correct. In the meantime, the collection of half a dozen is crippling to placing any trust in Washington.”

Context: “The Arab states suffer massive internal pressures from issues of population, identity, demography, economy, environment, ideology, crises of citizenship rights versus statehood obligations and secularism versus religiosity, and the perpetual pressure from foreign armies. In this wider context, the issues of freedom and democracy are dwarfed by the more pressing imperatives of stable statehood, liberation from foreign occupation, meeting basic human needs, and stopping foreign armies.”

Legitimacy: “There is no global consensus that the United States is mandated to promote freedom and democracy, or that this is the divinely ordained destiny of the United States. There is such a mandate, though, in the charter of the United Nations, in Security Council resolutions to end foreign occupations and international legal conventions — most of which the U.S. resists, ignores or applies very selectively. No surprise then that virtually the whole world resists the United States.”

Militarism: “The American use of preemptive war for regime change creates more problems than it solves. Promoting freedom and democracy through the guns of the Marines doesn't work for many people outside of Republican and neoconservative Washington circles.

Relevance: “The value of individual freedom as defined in American culture runs counter to how freedom is understood in most of the Middle East and the developing world. There, people sacrifice individual liberties for the protection and the communal expression of belonging to a bigger group — the family, tribe, religion or ethnic or national group.”

These concerns, Khouri says, “act as the primary constraint to any meaningful Arab cooperation with the U.S.” But, he adds, “The good news is that they all can be overcome through better communications between Arabs and Americans and more consistent, lawful policies by everyone concerned.”

Hopefully, Ms. Hughes will be persuaded that these are sound principles and should be followed. But the devil, of course, is in the details: Execution. How can Khouri’s principles be translated into programs and projects? Surely not with yet more slick TV channels like Al Hurra, which is viewed with skepticism throughout the Arab world as nothing more than propaganda.

Karen Hughes will find no shortage of ideas to consider. One of the most promising of them comes from a bipartisan task force led by former Defense Secretary William Cohen, including several dozen former U.S. Middle East ambassadors, and organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected Washington-based think tank.

Under the rubric of “Investing in the Next Generation of Arab Leaders”, the CSIS panel proposes the creation of an Arab Partnership Foundation (APF) to foster education, entrepreneurship, and reform among the next generation of Arab leaders.

APF would be a private not-for-profit corporation jointly funded by the U.S. government, foundations, and the private sector. The reason for distancing this entity from the government control, CSIS says, is that “the U.S. government lacks credibility in Arab countries at the moment, sometimes making it difficult even for sympathetic organizations and individuals to work with us.” It also notes that “our government, by its very design, is often unable to go beyond daily diplomatic pressures and adequately invest in the future.”

“We are currently reaping the rewards of investments we made in Arab people and institutions during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; the costs of today’s alienation may not be felt fully for decades. There is no one quick or easy solution. Fully reversing these trends will require using all the facets of public diplomacy—from exchanges to support for civil society—to make a serious long-term investment in reaching the next generation of Arab leaders and citizens”, the Report says.

“If we are going to create sustained Arab-U.S. partnerships—leader to leader, citizen to citizen—we will need an organization viewed as separate from the U.S. government, with a deep understanding of the Arab people”, the report concludes.

Well worth considering, Ms. Hughes.