"Why the U.S. Is Losing the Propaganda War"

By Eric Boehlert

By Salon Staff

Published October 15, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Read the story:

This quote is particularly telling: "'I just don't think propaganda is something Americans do well,' says Sanford Ungar, former director of VOA, and currently president of Goucher College. 'It's foreign to American journalism.'"

The point is precisely the opposite, although the former director may be loath to admit it. The reason why the VOA isn't listened to in the Arabic-speaking world is the same reason it isn't listened to in the non-U.S. aligned English-speaking world: It's seen as inherently propaganda-based, and lacks the kind of journalistic cred he seems to suggest makes it hard for American propaganda to work.

The BBC has had its problems with spats over "targeted killings" vs. "assassinations," but that kind of debate would just never occur on the Voice of America. There's one view that gets heard -- shared by VOA and the State Department. And that's not perceived to have changed since Vietnam days.

-- Peter Barrett

"But the United States is now discovering just how useless those governments are when it comes to building public support for any policies considered to be vaguely pro-American."

In order to control our oil supplies, our preferred Middle East government has been a client more answerable to Washington (and Houston) than to its own citizenry. We now expect these governments, which are not based on a mandate from their people, to suddenly have any political capital to expend on the U.S.'s behalf? It's probably easier for Iran to support the U.S. position than the Saudis.

We can develop relationships with these countries which ensure our energy future without promoting tyranny. But like all free markets, it will make that supply more subject to fluctuations and interruptions. Think of it as globalized deregulation.

-- Phil Ponebshek

The introductory stanza to Eric Boehlert's piece on why America is losing the propaganda war is revealing. "Nervous allies and not enough Arabic speakers mean Muslims around the world aren't getting America's side of the story." Could the U.S.'s tendency toward insularity, from which these things result, also explain why Americans don't understand the Muslim world's grievances against them?

-- Gray Charlton

So, as Americans, what can we do in light of this information? With all of the people we have in this country of Arabic decent, why can't/don't we be more involved with getting information to the Middle East in their language? I don't think that everyone should agree with the U.S., or its policies, but after the events of Sept. 11, I'd at least like them to get our side. I have been naive, probably like many Americans, in believing it was already happening. We have so many diplomats and government officials, it doesn't even make sense to me that this is an issue.

-- Joan Sulgit-Ware

In Vietnam and China, where I lived for three years, I listened to both VOA and BBC and talked to natives about their perceptions of the two. I was always told VOA comes across as out of touch, navel-gazing American propaganda, nearly ignorant of their reality. If you combine the fact that people in the Mideast see the BBC as "neutral," "accurate" and in touch, and add the fact that Bush and America are seen as peering through a lens of our own ignorance, then take into account that Tony Blair has actually been talking directly to Muslims and the Arabic world and is coming across as working to deliver the West's message that we're only seeking justice and security and not vengeance, I think we should take some lessons from Britain.

-- Kevin Plunkett

It is enlightening to know that the vast majority of the U.S. Diplomatic Corps does not speak any other language than English. As for VOA, it is as credible in the eyes of the world as Moscow Radio was in the days of the USSR. In fact, the mediocrity of the American press was fully revealed in yesterday's presidential press conference, where all the reporters that came up to bat asked lightweight, trivial questions of the president. The American people are being misserved by the herd mentality of the U.S. media, which does not ask the tough questions of our leaders! After all, did Condoleeza Rice ever stop to consider that Osama bin Laden can still transmit his codified messages via www.aljazeera.net, which is available through any public library in the U.S.? These government people are true idiots and the American press is not far behind!

-- Flavio Gominho

"The U.S. is just not good at propaganda"? This is Rush's true calling. He dodged the draft when he was eligible; now is his chance to truly serve his country, and serve it well! He, FoxNews, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Ari Fleischer, James Carville, Haley Barbour, James Gilmour, Michael Reagan, NewsMax.com, Matt Drudge and more. I know very little and I am surprised that I keep coming up with winners. These guys are millionaires for spewing propaganda. What the heck is "spin"? We all know we have some of the be best b.s. people in the world here in the good old USA.

-- Michael Conti

Actually America loses not only the so-called propaganda war but the moral war. There is no moral ground for America to bomb Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorists. Bombing will never hurt terrorists but [only] the poor civilians. What is worse is that American people will have to pay for what the American militants do in the Islamic world.

If America will never be able to think [about] the moral ground of military actions, American people will always be in a dangerous situation.

-- Vivian Dao

Regarding the problem of getting America's word out to the Islamic World, I suggest translating CNN or MSNBC into Arabic or other national tongues. VOA is suspect while BBC appears legitimate simply because VOA is avowedly propagandistic. The British public watches BBC continually. Americans don't get the daily news from VOA. Middle Eastern recipients of the broadcasts can tell the difference. Direct translation would give Muslims and Arabs an accurate picture of American thinking. Collaterally, it might reduce the mendaciousness of some media.

-- Conrad Stinson

Mr. Boehlert's article is absolutely one of the most brilliant, correctly focused articles I have read recently on how our country needs to WAKE UP to how the rest of the world falsely perceives us.

We have been so naively remiss in the war of words throughout the world, as I have experienced it, that we have got to consider Sept. 11 a wakeup call to get our act together and earnestly begin to consider winning the "hearts and minds" of the world.

Our good United States of America has SO MUCH to tell, educate, inculcate, inform the world about, that it is near gross negligence of our government not to recognize and immediately begin putting serious resources into this!

The more we learn to fight a war with words, the less we need bullets.

-- Walter H. Nagel, Foreign Area Officer, USAR

Salon Staff

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