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Interview With Michael Pelletier, U.S. State Department

Michael Pelletier is the State Department's media liaison officer in Dubai. Fluent in Arabic, he is one of a select few U.S. officials who appear regularly on Arab news shows to present America's point of view on key Mideast issues, including the war in Iraq. Here he talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Greg Barker about what sort of welcome his diplomacy mission has received, and about Washington's broader push to win influence in the region.

Greg Barker: Tell me about some of the shows you have been on, about appearing on Al Jazeera.

Michael Pelletier: Just last week, I did Hewar Maftouh, which means "Open Dialogue," at the Al Jazeera studios in Doha. It was me and the presenter; the producer had invited about 20 Arabs who live in Doha who represent the whole Arab world; we had Jordanians, Tunisians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Qatari.

It was the kind of show where you get to hear what people are really concerned with, as opposed to what the presenter or the journalist assumes people are really concerned with. It was an hour long but not nearly long enough, which is always the case. There is never enough time to answer all the questions.

pellitier

But it was really great. They had a lot of very tough questions about Iraq and where we are going in Iraq and what's happening to Iraq, as well as about the war this summer in Lebanon and the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

We did the show live about an hour and a half after the United States had vetoed what we considered to be an unbalanced U.N. Security Council resolution on the tragedy of what happened in Beit Hanoun [where 19 Palestinians were killed In November 2006 by Israeli shelling]. So there were a lot of questions and a lot of anger about that.

What was your participation in the show?

To me, it symbolizes or embodies the importance of having somebody out there to say, "Look, the U.S. people hate to see this sort of tragedy, and we suffer just like everybody else suffers when you see an innocent person killed. But our responsibility in the U.S. government is to focus on the best way forward for a long-term solution to the problem."

I always think of the civil rights movement. Keep your eyes on the prize -- in this case, a long-term peaceful, stable region, and that's what the U.S. government policy is out for. I'm not trying to say that I was able to change the views of those 20 people in the room, but I think that we did by the end of the hour have a much more reasoned and a much more balanced understanding of the situation.

People in the Arab world feel that it's their neighbors, it's their homes, and, of course, they focus on the horrible tragedies, as do we. But to be able to then say, "OK, how do we get over this and move toward a stable long-term solution?" is what we all need to focus on. I think we were able to do that a little bit by the end of that program.

So you are speaking in Arabic during these shows?

Yes.

Off the cuff?

Yes. I know the policy. I spend a lot of time reading policy.

Are you thinking in the back of your head, "What's the official line in Washington? I have to be careful what I say here," or do you just try to engage the moment?

I don't think there is necessarily a conflict between those two things.

In the past, the State Department's tradition was that you have to get everybody on board. But here, there's no time for that. For you, is it just getting out there as much as you can?

You work from the fact that you know what the policy is, and you know what the public statements have been. I know what the president has said, what the secretary has said and so forth. And I know what people's concerns are in the Arab world. So my challenge, then, is to have a real, honest, heartfelt discussion with them and present what is the U.S. policy, what statements have been made.

And you don't have time to worry, word for word, what has been cleared by everybody, but you do know what the policy is. And when you get right down to it, the policy is pretty straightforward. So I haven't found it to be all that difficult to use that policy and yet still be able to have a real discussion in real time with real words. The State Department realizes that Karen Hughes has really been pushing for this. As long as you get the basic policy right, and you know what you are saying, you can do it in whatever way you need to, to get that point across to your audience.

Also, there is a broader discussion out there among people from all parts of American society who come to the Arab world to interact with people and to present that picture. I think that's a very important part of the puzzle as well, for people in the Arab world to realize, "Look, America has debates about these issues as well." My small part of that puzzle is the U.S. government part of it, but there is a much bigger dialogue that needs to go on, and I would encourage everybody, and I do encourage everybody, to try to take part in that dialogue.

What's been the reaction to the [U.S. mid-term] elections here?

It's been interesting. In a sense, there has been a huge expectation, which I think is probably not correct, that there will be major changes in U.S. policy now that the elections have changed control of the House and Senate. A lot of what embassies around the world do and a lot of what I've been doing since the elections is to explain to people what our political system is all about. The president has the leading role in foreign policy, and part of that role is an important and engaged debate with the Senate and the House of Representatives about policy, about details, about people and how to move forward. And that debate is ongoing, whether the same party controls the presidency and the legislature or different parties control them.

Are there new ideas and new thoughts and new discussions about Iraq, particularly since the election? Absolutely. Did Iraq get people really enthusiastic about voting, and did it affect some people's votes? Absolutely. But that policy debate is what democracy is really all about. And that debate is a continual one.

On a broader level, why does it really matter to the national interest of the United States to get America's position out more clearly on the Arab media? The State Department talks to governments all the time. Why do we care what the ordinary TV viewer thinks?

We believe in the power of public opinion. We are a democracy, and we believe in democracy and that whole system, as messy as it can be sometimes. And we care about popular opinion and public opinion. We also owe it to the Arab public to show them that we do respect their opinion and their role in affecting the world's realities right now.

Part of that is not just presenting our opinions and our positions to them, but it's also listening. I mean, one of the reasons why I really enjoy a program like Hewar Maftouh is that you have a studio audience as well. We also did a program on Lebanese TV a few days back, where some students took part. It gives me a chance to hear what people are saying and what people are thinking on the Arab streets, and I get to tell my colleagues in Washington about that every day. I'm not saying that public opinion in the Arab world is going to change U.S. policy or our overall policy goals. It won't. Because our policy goals are built on a whole number of elements. But what it should do is better inform ourselves and allow us to realize the effects that our policies will have. That is hugely important.

Many of the Arab journalists that I work with do realize that we do care enough to listen and to learn about what's being said and what's being felt.

From your perspective, what's the difference between Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera?

I don't focus on the differences between them so much as the similarities. I think of them both as leading pan-Arab media, very professional organizations. They've got some really wonderful, incredibly intelligent, incredibly professional people that work for them at all levels. They have a different tenor or a different mood somewhat. Al Arabiya really focuses a lot on the news and current events and what they get in from their correspondents and global coverage. I think Al Jazeera is known a bit more for some of its talk shows and some of its more argumentative talk shows. You know, they have a different view of what their role is, and that comes through in the types of programs they put on. Al Jazeera is known for its slogan, which is "a view and the opposite point of view," whereas Al Arabiya's slogan translates to "we see hope everywhere." They try to show what's going on and how things are changing for the better in the Arab world.

You described that one experience with the Al Jazeera studio audience. Do you feel in some way like you are going into enemy territory there?

Not at all, not at all. They are professional people who want to get the news out. Some of the people that work there have a particular political point of view, which sometimes comes through on their programs. Sometimes, it comes through fair enough; sometimes it comes through feeling not balanced. But, as a U.S. government official, I think I need to look at it and say, regardless, my goal is to listen to and engage the Arab publics through the pan-Arab media. What media are they looking at? They are looking at Al Jazeera, and, therefore, I need to be available to Al Jazeera, and I need to work with them. And the fact that I may not always agree 100 percent with their editorial line is my problem.

Some would call that editorial line Islamist, fundamentalist. Do you characterize it that way?

As I said at the beginning, their slogan is, "the view and the opposite point of view," and I think they sometimes try to stress that theirs is the opposite point of view, the news you do not always hear in what they consider the mainstream media.

But they are the mainstream media.

Well, in the Arab world, they are the mainstream media, that's right. And you've got to also remember how rapid this development has been. I think it's still a bit of a surprise to some people, even some people that work there that, "Hey, we are the mainstream right now."

Because of what came before?

Before Al Jazeera -- and they were the pioneers of this -- you had government-run media that told the local government's point of view. Al Jazeera really broke the mold and started talking about regional issues and taking a global point of view and not being beholden to any one specific government. That was pretty revolutionary, and I think that's why you see so many people now following in that path.

But just in general, though, what about the hostility toward America's national interest?

I have to say, I haven't seen it. I've certainly seen some comments on the news and some stacking of the deck when it comes to how many guests you have on a certain side of one issue on a talk show. You know, three to one to me is not fair. Two to two is fair. And that happens. But is that always necessarily hostile to U.S. interests? I don't think so. I think the responsibility falls on us as the American government and the American people to get out there and get our viewpoint across. The more people we have who can get on those programs and speak Arabic and present our opinions in all their diversity, the better off we'll be. And that's what they want for their programs as well. They also want market share, and what gets market share in this part of the world, just like in the United States, is an exciting, lively, sometimes contentious program. That's just the law of the market.

Are their motivations more determined by ideology, or is it that "We have to get as many eyeballs here as we can because we've got to make a profit, and this all costs a lot of money"?

It does cost a lot of money.

It isn't making a profit yet.

My understanding is that it's not making a profit, yes. News is not a big profitable business anywhere in the world -- in the United States as well. It's the entertainment and sports programs that bring in the big bucks. It's not necessarily the news programs. But news programs are an important responsibility of the media, and I think the people that run all these stations -- not just Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya but the LBC [Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation] and MBC [Middle East Broadcastijng Center] and Nile [satellites] and so on -- they feel that responsibility to get the news programs out.

We are focusing this conversation on these big two [Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya], but there are many others, right?

Right; they are growing every single day. You've got stations all over the Arab world that use satellite technology now. It's pretty hard to think of a station that's only earth based; almost all of them have satellite-based stations and transmit over the Nile satellite and Arab satellite to every part of the Arab world. You have a number that are specifically focused on regional outreach, but it changes constantly. I've read studies that say this part of the world is actually more saturated with satellite stations than any other part of the world. The vast majority of those are music videos and movie stations because, again, that's where you get your money. But the news programming is also big.

You were just in Lebanon. What were you doing there?

Presenting this concept of the regional media hubs to my colleagues at the embassy there as well as to the media there, particularly the regional media. I was on Voix du Liban, which is one of the national radio stations with a regional footprint, as well as on LBCI, which is one of the Lebanese channels that is both a regional and an international station. We did a real media blitz, as it were.

But you don't go on Al Manar?

No.

Tell us why.

Al Manar is an integral part of Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization. Al Manar is a propaganda arm. It's also a way for them to get their message out to raise money. Unfortunately, Hezbollah has not been able to, or has not been willing to, renounce violence and renounce terrorism and play a really positive, responsible role in Lebanon's future. We saw that most tellingly this summer, when Hezbollah, without asking anybody's permission, went ahead and started a war and brought terrible suffering and destruction down upon the Lebanese people.

What Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice has said repeatedly is, "You can't have one foot in the political game and one foot in the violence." You have to make a decision, and Hezbollah so far has not been willing to renounce violence and terrorism. Al Manar is an integral part of Hezbollah, and, therefore, we won't deal with them.

Are they watched beyond Lebanon?

The station is available in other countries.

I think I've heard that they have the biggest viewership in the Gaza Strip.

I haven't seen reports. Usually, Al Jazeera is the one that leads most of the markets. Unfortunately, I don't think they [Al Manar] use that viewership very responsibly.

Just to be clear, if they [Al Manar] called you up and said they really want to get you or another U.S. official on one of their talk shows, what would your response be?

I'd say, "I'm sorry. I can't talk to you."

Because you are a State Department ...

Because the U.S. government does not engage with terrorist organizations, and if you want to engage with us, it's pretty clear what you have to do and pretty reasonable in terms of your denouncing violence and accepting Israel and accepting previous agreements and moving forward.

Just from a media standpoint, you don't consider them to be a media outlet?

I don't consider them a media [organization]. I consider them a branch of Hezbollah, which is another terrorist organization. They have that responsibility.