March 7, 2011

Public broadcasting as public diplomacy

From a Zaharna-esque point of view, if we are going to turn public diplomacy from propaganda to strategic engagement, is traditional “international broadcasting” the way to go? It seems disingenuous to change the news based on who’s listening, and is certainly not transparent or open or any of those adjectives we say we want our government to be. The Smith-Mundt Act only makes the situation sound even worse, because we’re not even supposed to know what is broadcast to other countries.

Perhaps 50 years ago, the broadcasts of the VOA were a mystery to most people, and the chance of hearing foreign stations pop up on US soil was minimal. Now, BBC and RT show up on my basic cable, I can live-stream Al Jazeera online, and if I had satellite cable, I could get practically every channel from around the world. Information overload, certainly, but at least I’d know what we were saying, to whom, and what they thought about us.

Maybe if Americans heard about the US relationship with Kenya, or Uzbekistan, or anywhere, they’d be more inclined to take an interest in international affairs, or at least learn where that is on a map. And maybe if they heard what we were saying over VOA, they’d know a little bit more about public diplomacy and why its important. If our communications are transparent, they need not be covert, but if we’re hiding things, we probably have something to hide.

Or maybe, everyone else could get the same news we get (just kidding, not Fox). Al Jazeera (called propaganda and other epithets) broadcasts to a regional audience, but offered a different view that pulled in new viewers in the US by the thousands to watch events in Egypt unfold. Al Jazeera English has some different programming, but the idea seems to be the same no matter which station you’re watching. If we would change how they view the news, but not what news they watch, perhaps our credibility would be better than what it is. And maybe public diplomacy would benefit, too.

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