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Repairing American public diplomacy

Issue 7, Winter 2009

By William A. Rugh

State Department official Alberto Fernandez speaks on al-Jazeera

State Department official Alberto Fernandez speaks on al-Jazeera

It is widely believed among academics who study the subject, and among former practitioners, that public diplomacy has not achieved its full potential,[1] and we are hopeful that the Obama Administration will now solve some of its problems.  This essay focuses on the most important challenges, which in many ways concern broadcasting to the Arab world.

Public diplomacy is of course not a panacea.  America’s foreign policy decisions such as the Iraq war, or its policies at home such as the Patriot Act and Guantanamo detentions, have been strongly criticized abroad, undermining our international reputation and respect.  Public diplomacy by itself cannot eliminate all criticism of our policies.  It can only help to mitigate objections by explaining the U.S. government’s reasons for these policies, and by reminding foreign audiences of the aspects of America they still admire, in its society, culture and political system.

It is also true that the election of Barack Obama, which has generated a generally positive reaction around the world, will not by itself burnish America’s tarnished image abroad.  His new policies may help, but misunderstandings of the United States will continue, out of ignorance or deliberate distortion.  Public diplomacy programs can help present an accurate picture of America to foreign audiences, a task more important than ever in this age of 24/7 information proliferation.

What are the systemic problems hindering U.S. public diplomacy and how can the Obama Administration fix them?

Engaging with Arabic broadcasting

The worldwide proliferation of satellite television over the past decade provided an opportunity that the Bush administration missed, at least at first.  Although al-Jazeera started in 1996 and quickly became the most popular Arabic news channel, Washington officials ignored it until after 9/11 when it broadcast statements by Osama bin Laden that were picked up by American commercial networks.  The U.S. blamed the messenger and tried to get al-Jazeera to change by putting pressure on the station’s sponsor, the Qatari government.

Secretary of State Colin Powell complained to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in October 2001 that the station was helping bin Laden by broadcasting his messages uncritically, but Sheikh Hamad deflected the complaint, saying it was misdirected because al-Jazeera was a private station.[2]  Powell again complained to Qatar about al-Jazeera in April 2004, after the invasion of Iraq, saying that it was inciting Arab audiences to violence against American troops, which undermined U.S.-Qatari relations.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also accused Al-Jazeera of "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting," and other officials echoed these charges.[3]  Moreover, American officials imposed an unannounced boycott on al-Jazeera, preventing senior officials from participating in its programs.

This ineffective policy of trying to fight al-Jazeera was reversed later by Karen Hughes when she became Undersecretary of State in 2005.  She realized that the boycott was harming American public diplomacy efforts more than helping them, and voices explaining and defending American policy were not being heard, so she encouraged officials to engage proactively with Arab media, and they did so.[4]  She also established “media hubs” in Dubai and London staffed with public diplomacy professionals who jousted with Arab media full time.  As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, for example, and critics all over the world and especially in the Arab countries blamed the United States for the lack of security, lack of services and generally chaotic conditions there, Karen Hughes herself and other senior officials participated in talk shows on Arab media in an effort to explain the American point of view.  When the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict broke out in the summer of 2006, and criticism of Washington’s posture became intense, they again worked hard to engage in a discussion of American policy.

Working-level public diplomacy professionals continued to participate in discussions in Arabic and English with Arab media.  Alberto Fernandez, a fluent Arabic speaker responsible for public diplomacy in the Near East Bureau at the State Department, was particularly active, speaking by phone usually several times each day with Arab broadcasting outlets, making the American case in a sophisticated and persuasive way.  The return to engagement with Arabic media was a significant improvement in our public diplomacy effort that took place on Karen Hughes’ watch, although it has fallen off somewhat since she left her position in 2007, and her successor James Glassman focused more on the Internet.  For example during the 2009 Gaza crisis, when criticism of the United States again increased, outreach to Arab television did not increase significantly.

Such outreach has been effective and should be sustained.  There are encouraging indications that Barack Obama understands this.  In his first week as President, he gave an exclusive interview to al-Arabiya Television, one of the leading regional Arab TV channels, in which he spoke directly to Arabs and Muslims in a way that was sensitive to their concerns.  Prominent Arab commentators welcomed Obama’s choice of an Arab TV channel for one of his first interviews.[5]

BBG Arabic broadcasting

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is responsible for all of the U.S. Government’s international broadcasting, has also made several missteps since 9/11 that have seriously harmed American public diplomacy.  The Congress in 1999 abolished the U.S. Information Agency that then controlled all government civilian broadcasting, and turned it over to the nine-member bipartisan BBG.  The intent was to isolate it from political influence, but in practice, the BBG has been an irresponsible steward of America’s broadcasting assets.  It has turned out to be so independent that its members have taken decisions on their own that have caused consternation and protest among many people who believe the quality and effectiveness of programming has declined.[6]  What has the BBG done?

In March 2002, the BBG cancelled the Voice of America’s Arabic Service that had been operating successfully since World War II, and substituted “Radio Sawa,” that broadcast mostly popular music for young listeners.  The VOA Arabic Service had provided a broad spectrum of news, current affairs, features and other programs intended to appeal not only to youth but to all age groups including influential adults.  When it was cancelled in 2002 it was reportedly reaching more than three million Arab adults on medium wave and short wave, including nearly half a million Saudis.[7]  The move towards youth-oriented programming came at the expense of reaching decision makers and politically influential adults.  Critics of Radio Sawa said it abandoned these listeners, undermining the public diplomacy impact of Arabic broadcasting.[8]

Then in February 2004, the BBG established a new Arabic language television channel, al-Hurra, intended to compete with al-Jazeera and other Arabic news channels.  The BBG argued that al-Hurra would provide accurate information and truthful commentary in an environment that they claimed was both hostile to the U.S. and insufficiently “free.”  But this project turned out to be a disappointment because of its poor programming and poll data showing that it failed to attract a significant audience.  Moreover, its basic rationale was thrown into doubt when viewers who watched it found that it was less willing to tackle controversial subjects than al-Jazeera and other satellite TV channels.  Independent observers have concluded that al-Hurra has failed.[9]  A study by the University of Southern California in 2008, for example, found al-Hurra’s journalism was weak, lacked relevance to the audience, and was perceived to be biased propaganda.[10]

In the past, U.S. Government broadcasting faced the fundamental question of how to balance policy advocacy with good journalism.  Effective public diplomacy should always be truthful to be credible, as Edward R. Murrow famously argued, but as a government-sponsored instrument it also has an obligation to help disseminate and explain U.S. policies.  The VOA managed successfully to combine those two goals.  The VOA Charter said: “As an official radio, VOA will present the policies of the United States Government clearly and persuasively.”  But it added:  “VOA will also present responsible discussion and opinion of these policies.”  And it stressed the requirement of journalistic objectivity, saying VOA must be “a consistently reliable an authoritative source of news” that is “accurate, objective and comprehensive.”  It said VOA must “represent America, not any single segment of American society.  It will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of American thought and institutions.”[11]  The VOA repeatedly demonstrated that it could balance policy advocacy with good journalism.  For example it covered the Vietnam War including the My Lai massacre in 1969 and then Watergate, telling the story honestly, but while also advocating U.S. policy.[12]

Radio Sawa and al Hurra have struggled unsuccessfully to fuse information and advocacy broadcasting.[13]  Al-Hurra at first veered too far in the advocacy direction, and then when a new director tried to expand its journalistic freedom in 2007, he was fired for giving too much air time to Hassan Nasrallah.[14]  The new stations have not found the proper balance that VOA had developed over a period of more than six decades.

Moreover, the BBG compounded the problem by deciding to pay for these new Arabic stations and stepped-up broadcasting to Iran by shifting money in the budget from more successful broadcasts to other parts of the world, rather than by asking Congress for new funding.  This decision was taken in the context of the prevailing atmosphere in Washington in which senior officials of the Bush administration were focused so intently on Bush’s Global War on Terror and the Iraq and Afghanistan military conflicts, that other parts of the world appeared secondary.  

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[1] The Public Diplomacy Council, an NGO representing public diplomacy professionals, has published eight white papers that reflect this view, such as, Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting for a New Era November 2008, ,Basic Principles on Improving U.S. Public Diplomacy November 2008, Seizing the Moment in U.S. Overseas Broadcasting: A Call for Action December. 2007  FY 2008 International Broadcast Funding at a Critical Crossroads June 2007, A Call for Action on Public Diplomacy (2d Edition) October 2005  (http://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org). The USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School has also published many articles along this line.  (http://uscpublicdilomacy.com)

[2] Shaikh Hamad was technically correct, but he could have influenced al-Jazeera if he wanted to, because he subsidizes it.  Al-Jazeera has helped put Qatar on the global map, so Sheikh Hamad could not simply cave into American pressure.

[3] William A. Rugh, “Washington and the Challenge of Arab Press Freedom”, Arab Reform Bulletin, December 2004, vol.2, issue 11, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications), see also William A. Rugh, “How Washington Confronts Arab Media”, Global Media Journal, vol.3, issue 5, Fall 2004,

[4] William A. Rugh, “Anti-Americanism on American Television: Some Outsider Observations”, Transnational Broadcasting Studies, online in TBS Journal no. 15, January-June 2006

 [5] Eg Al-Hayat January 28, 2009, welcomed Obama’s choice of al-Arabiya for his first foreign interview as “another indication” that his Administration puts “Middle Eastern issues and relations with the Muslim world among its priorities.

 [6] Eg Sanford J. Ungar, “Renaissance”, and Myrna Whitworth, “Conversation with America”, in Alan L. Heil., Jr., Ed., Local Voices, Global Perspectives, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, pp.43-56

 [7] Information from Myrna Whitworth.

 [8] For example, Marc Lynch, “America and the Arab Media Environment”, in William A. Rugh, Ed., Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds Through Public Diplomacy, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, pp.90-108, and Salemeh Nematt, “The Middle East News Gap”, in Alan L. Heil, Jr., Ed., Local  Voices, Global Perspectives, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, pp.63-68

 [9] See for example Dafna Linzer, “Lost in Translation: Alhurra -  America’s Troubled Effort to Win Middle Eastern Hearts and Minds”, ProPublica, June22, 2008

[10] Center on Public Diplomacy, Annenberg School, University of Southern California, “An Evaluation of Alhurra Television Programming”, July 31, 2008, pp.3-6.

 [11] The Charter was signed into law by President Ford on July 12, 1976; Hans N. Tuch, Communicating with the World, Washington DC, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 1990, pp.87-88

 [12] Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the Unite States Information Agency, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp.308, 321-27.

 [13] This challenge was discussed in William A. Rugh, “Broadcasting and American Public Diplomacy” Transnational Broadcasting Studies, TBS 14, Spring 2005

 [14] See details of the Larry Register flap in Marc Lynch, “The Alhurra Project: Radio Marti of the Middle East.” Arab Media & Society, June 2007.

 [15] For details see Public Diplomacy Council, “Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting for a New Era”, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, December 4, 2007

 [16] Helmke, Mark, “The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting”, chapter 12 in Alan L. Heil Jr., Ed., Local Voices, Global Perspectives; Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media, Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, 2008, pp.85-88

 [17] Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Every Day Lives, New York: Henry Holt, 2008, pp.104-110; for additional examples, see Turse, passim,  and David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2004

 [18] William A. Rugh, “How Washington Confronts Arab Media”, Global Media Journal, vol.3, issue 5, Fall 2004,

 [19]  Details in Max Boot, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, in the Los Angeles Times, 4/27/04

 [20] The Washington Post, 1/15/06 p.B3

 [21] Remarks by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Council on Foreign Relations 2/17/2006, and remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Manhattan, Kansas, November 26, 2007

 [22] Interview conducted by Hisham Melhem, January 26, 2008, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2009/01/27/65096.html

 [23] She had been chairperson of advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, and earlier head of public relations firm Ogilvy and Mather.

 [24] Interview with Charlotte Beers, spring 2002

 [25] For details see William A. Rugh, “Quiet Progress in Public Diplomacy”, oped, The Baltimore Sun, July 31, 2007

 [26] e.g. “Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century”, Glassman remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, July 2, 2008, http://America.gov

 [27] For details see William A. Rugh, “Enabling Public Diplomacy Field Officers to Do Their Jobs”, Public Diplomacy Council website, December 20, 2008, ww.publicdiplomacycouncil.org

 [28] For details on this distinction, see William A. Rugh, “Enabling Public Diplomacy Field Officers to Do Their Jobs”, Public Diplomacy Council website, December 20, 2008, www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org.

[29] The one exception is Hizbullah’s al-Manar network, which is by law currently off limits because the U.S. Government considers it an arm of a terrorist organization.