TOPICS > Nation

Reaching Out

February 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: The people in these Cairo streets and elsewhere in the Arab world are about to hear a new sound. Call it the Top 40 meets the Middle East.

RADIO BROADCAST: Famous singing star Jennifer Lopez.

TERENCE SMITH: This English language demonstration tape is a translated example of the planned format for the Middle East radio network.

NEWSCASTER: At 15 past the hour, this is news of the moment. President Bush takes action against more terrorist groups.

TERENCE SMITH: Debuting in the next few months, it will be part of an ambitious new U.S. government campaign to win over the hearts and minds of listeners in the Middle East, especially the young in predominantly Arabic- speaking countries.

The broadcast will be a mixture of tunes, both western and Middle Eastern, and talk, in Arabic. It will be available to a vast potential audience: The estimated 99 million listeners aged 15 to 34 from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Gary Thatcher is overseeing the startup of the service.

GARY THATCHER: We’re going to clearly identify that this is U.S. International Broadcasting. However, our intent is not to identify ourselves as the voice of America. We want to get a name that signifies something to the people in the Arab world, something that has a bit of verve, that’s catchy.

TERENCE SMITH: Initially the broadcast will emanate from this television, and online facility being built at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington. Congress has appropriated some $30 million to get the Middle East radio network up and running. By summer, it is expected to be broadcast from facilities in this “media city” in the Persian Gulf capital of Dubai. Gary Thatcher expects some local resistance to the new service.

GARY THATCHER: It’s quite clear that some people would not like these broadcasts to go on at all because we do intend to tackle sensitive subjects. We intend to talk about things that are… perhaps are unwelcome in some areas.

RADIO BROADCAST: Up to the minute news direct from the Middle East…

TERENCE SMITH: Mamoun Fandy, professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University, says the musical approach may resonate with the under-30 crowd that constitutes the majority of almost every Arab country.

TERENCE SMITH: So you’ve heard a little bit of this. What do you think?

MAMOUN FANDY, Professor, National Defense University: I think it’s good for Washington. The question is how much of the market will would you get? And probably America’s name would sell this, if you have more American content, probably more cultural content– soft content rather than just hard news.

TERENCE SMITH: The new radio network is just one part of a multifaceted government campaign of public diplomacy designed to blunt the fervent anti-American sentiment that is prevalent in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world. The Hearts and Minds campaign is gearing up just as the military campaign in Afghanistan is winding down.

Plans call for expanded broadcasting to the region, ad campaigns designed to stress American values, and more frequent appearances by U.S. government officials on regional media outlets. Part of the effort is being coordinated from this White House war room.

SPOKESPERSON: The first thing you’ll notice is the clocks. We have time zones not only in America but around the world.

TERENCE SMITH: And others like it in Great Britain and Islamabad, Pakistan. Counselor to the President Karen Hughes says the challenge is tracking what misinformation is being spread and rapidly responding.

KAREN HUGHES, Counselor to the President: You have seen the catalog of lies, which is our document documenting the misstatements that have been made by the Taliban. And this is all updated by the date of the statement, the allegation and the actual facts.

TERENCE SMITH: Truth, of course, can be in the ear of the listener. Beyond the new radio venture, increased government funding is already helping the Voice of America expand its broadcasts in Dari and Pashto languages into Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia. And a separate U.S. government network, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has expanded its broadcasting to the region, and revived the dormant Radio Free Afghanistan. Tom Dine is President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

TOM DINE, President, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: We will be reporting news and information about local parts of the Afghan landscape, and we will also be reporting what goes on in Kabul. If we can help Afghans communicate with each other and… so that the people in Herat know what the people in Kandahar think and know, et cetera, then that will be a contribution to tying things back together as best we can.

TERENCE SMITH: And at the State Department, there is a specific title for a new mission. Former top Madison Avenue ad executive Charlotte Beers is the undersecretary for public diplomacy; she made her reputation with hugely successful commercial campaigns such as those for Uncle Ben’s Rice and Hoover Vacuums. Now, she is trying to rebrand America.

CHARLOTTE BEERS, Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy: I’m very concerned that we get our information out in full context. We know that in many of the countries where our messages are sent, that often they’re distorted, they’re one- dimensional, or they’re simply not heard. We also know that often we are not the relevant voice, and we are searching in many different places for those voices, which will be relevant and credible.

TERENCE SMITH: One of Beers’ top aides is state department special advisor Christopher Ross. The Arabic-speaking former ambassador to Syria says the public diplomacy campaign has a wide scope.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS, Special Adviser, State Department: First, of representing what this country is about, the American values that define us; second, to encourage a process of greater democratization, greater openness, stronger civil society in the countries of the region; and third, to help to develop educational systems that give the younger generation the tools that they would need to participate in modern life in a way that is diametrically opposed to the program of someone like Osama bin Laden.

TERENCE SMITH: Showing how careful the U.S. government has to be in its approach, the State Department was stung by criticism involving this ad. It ran in U.S. newspapers, featuring the alleged hijacking ringleader Mohammed Atta.

But it sparked criticism in the Arab world because the ad text assigns facts and statements associated not with Atta, but with alleged September 11 hijacker Zacharias Moussaoui. For example, the ad says of Atta, “He wanted to learn to fly, but didn’t need to know how to take off and land.” That was Moussaoui, not Atta. Christopher Ross said he’d heard the criticism that the ad might generate greater distrust among already skeptical Arab countries.

CHRISTOPHER ROSS: Preparation of the text, in retrospect, could have been done differently. We could have put up a generic picture of a terrorist above, but that wouldn’t have had the same effect as a face that was immediately recognizable.

TERENCE SMITH: Another controversy arose when a Defense Department leaflet dropped in Afghanistan used an altered photo of a clean-shaven Osama bin Laden in a western suit. The leaflet read: “Osama bin Laden, the murderer and coward, has abandoned you.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked if the doctoring of the photo might give the Muslim world reason to doubt America’s word.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I had not thought about it, and I was not aware of that particular leaflet, although I think that leaflets have been generally very good and very effective.

TERENCE SMITH: Misfires like these hurt the effort, in the view of Professor Fandy.

MAMOUN FANDY: It was absolutely ill- conceived– yeah, absolutely counterproductive. That particular photo was read as something that is silly. The image of the United States in the Muslim world is a country that’s almost omnipotent and omniscient and does not make mistakes.

TERENCE SMITH: Not everyone is convinced that America can be marketed.

TOM DINE: You can’t sell America. It isn’t mayonnaise. America is different than that, and it’s a lot more sophisticated, and it takes a lot more talent than I think we’re applying now.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the government is pursuing more outreach efforts. Secretary of State Colin Powell took questions recently in this MTV forum that linked him to young people in six cities on four continents. He described the challenge.

COLIN POWELL: The United States has to do a better job of presenting our case of who we are, what we are, what our values system is to the Islamic world and to nations around the world. And so I’m investing a lot of time and money and effort in that, in the Department of State and throughout the United States government. I think we have a great story to tell.

I’m very proud of my country. I’m proud of what we have achieved, and I’m proud of what we have helped so many people around the world achieve. And it’s a story we’ve got to do a better job of selling to the rest of the world.

TERENCE SMITH: And the White House has announced that boxing great Mohammed Ali will tape a message to be distributed to fellow Muslims abroad.

MAMOUN FANDY: I think Muhammad Ali is a great idea because Muhammad Ali has both the image and the credibility. People in the Muslim world see Muhammad Ali as a man who tells the truth. Even if the American government tells him to sell something to the Muslim world, he will tell the truth. This is a very classic case where the messenger and the message mesh very nicely. That’s a perfect idea.

TERENCE SMITH: And administration officials such as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are continuing to reach out to the Arab media in weekly interviews, such as this one with Abu Dhabi TV. But Mamoun Fandy, who has informally advised the State Department on its campaign, says a lot of repair work remains to be done.

MAMOUN FANDY: I think the public diplomacy campaign has done pretty badly, thus far. I think public opinion has changed in the Arab and Muslim world due to the defeat of the Taliban, but not because of an effort, a conscious effort that’s made by those who are running the public diplomacy campaign.

TERENCE SMITH: The administration and its critics agree on one point: Changing attitudes about America abroad will take a long, sustained effort that could easily outlast the military phase of the war on terrorism.