Background: Winning Hearts and Minds
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TERENCE SMITH: This is the Voice of America, being transmitted in Pashto, Urdu, and Dari — three important languages, along with Arabic and Farsi, in the Voice of America’s effort to cover the war for listeners in the midst of it in Central Asia. In the wake of the air strikes against the Taliban regime, the 60-year-old government agency has increased its spending and more than doubled its broadcasts to Afghanistan. It’s also seeking $30 million in funds to create a new 24-hour Middle East radio network aimed at younger Arabs. Research conducted last year showed that 80 percent of Afghan males listen to VOA broadcasts weekly.
ROBERT REILLY, Director, Voice of America: This is a full court press, and I think one of the finest hours for the Voice of America because it shows what we can do on behalf of the people of the United States and on behalf of the president.
TERENCE SMITH: Newly-appointed Voice of America director Robert Reilly says the VOA mission is clear: To report the news objectively while getting the government message out via daily editorials which are up to three minutes long and run an average of two times a day.
ANNOUNCER: Next, an editorial expressing the policies of the United States government.
TERENCE SMITH: VOA is heard each week by more than 91 million people worldwide.
ROBERT REILLY: Each week we produce 900 broadcasting hours in 53 languages. What’s different between now and September 11 is that we are increasing our broadcast in all relevant language services to the Afghan area. That includes Dari; Pashto inside Afghanistan; Farsi in Iran– and there are many Farsi speakers inside Afghanistan. Increased broadcasts to Uzbekistan in Uzbek.
ANNOUNCER: VOA Karachi.
TERENCE SMITH: The mission of the news programs on VOA Radio, on the Internet…
VOA EMPLOYEE: Take the wide shot again –
TERENCE SMITH: …And on television, as spelled out in the agency’s charter, is distinctly different from that of the editorials.
ROBERT REILLY: Propaganda, of course, comes from the root “to propagate”, and in that sense, it’s not an onerous term. But in modern-day lingo, it is — because it implies that someone is going to instead of giving you the straight news; slant it in such a way that distortion would gain you some temporary advantage. We’re not after temporary advantage. We’re after maintaining the credibility of our news so we maintain the trust of our audience.
TERENCE SMITH: That independence was challenged a few weeks ago when the Bush administration tried to kill this story, which contained interview excerpts with Taliban Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher.
RICHARD BOUCHER, State Department spokesman: Considering the fact that U.S. taxpayers paid for this, considering the fact this is the Voice of America, we don’t think that the head of the Taliban belongs on this radio station.
TERENCE SMITH: VOA resisted and ultimately broadcast excerpts of the interview. Meanwhile, as part of a broad-based campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, the U.S. government has been dropping these leaflets into Afghanistan. And EC-130 aircraft, outfitted as flying broadcast studios, have been bombarding Taliban fighters with an audio message that translates as: “Surrender now and we will give you a second chance. We will let you live.”
TERENCE SMITH: In his first primetime televised news conference, President Bush laid out the goals of the information offensive.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have go to do a better job of making our case. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining to the people in the Middle East, for example, that we don’t fight a war against Islam or Muslims, we don’t hold any religion accountable. We’re fighting evil.
TERENCE SMITH: To convey the message, top administration officials have begun granting interviews on Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, which reaches an estimated 35 to 40 million people in the Arab world.
SPOKESMAN: Hello. How are you? Nice to see you.
TERENCE SMITH: But Al-Jazeera may prove a double-edged sword. In addition to showcasing American officials, the satellite network has also broadcast civilian casualties in Afghanistan, subsequently acknowledged by the Pentagon, that resulted from U.S. bombing. To blunt those negative images Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue ad executive who has been named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is weighing an unconventional strategy to project the nation’s message: Paid advertising on Al-Jazeera.
ARI FLEISCHER: To provide accurate and timely information on the war….
TERENCE SMITH: Today, at the White House, presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed that the U.S. And British governments are coordinating a worldwide communications strategy that will include briefing reporters around the clock. Fleischer said the aim was to get ahead of what he called Taliban lies.
ARI FLEISCHER: There is a recognition about the fact, particularly with a 24-hour news cycle, people waking up on the other side of the world and they first get their information from the Taliban before they are able to get the facts from anybody in a position of responsibility, that we will put together a capacity to respond and to have a message going out.
TERENCE SMITH: Fleischer said the governments would establish briefing centers in Islamabad, London and Washington to stay ahead of the news curve.