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Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 / 22 Tamuz, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Can Britney win hearts of the Middle East? | When Voice of America recently called for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, people heard the message in English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Tibetan, Amharic, Lao and Swahili. Astonishingly enough -- bewilderingly enough -- they did not hear the argument for President Bush's centerpiece war policy in Arabic.

Instead, the 250 million Arabic-speakers in the Middle East could tune in to the pop sounds and quick-hit news of "Radio Sawa," the broadcast-baby of the Middle East Radio Network (MERN). Having replaced VOA's Arabic service, MERN is the new government network officially charged with winning "hearts and minds" in the Arab world -- no easy task given the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that infuse the region's state-controlled media.

Three months into its mission, MERN is still stuck on the "hearts" part of the equation, offering Western and Arab pop music topped with what a recent article called a "dollop" of news: an average of three to five minutes' worth every half hour. Occasionally newscasts run 10 minutes, and may include interviews with, say, Colin Powell, or even full coverage of such events as President Bush's long-awaited address on the Middle East. A pop offensive led by Britney Spears and her Arab counterparts, with only bursts of news, is not exactly how MERN previously billed itself to Congress.

"In a week, we'll begin broadcasting policy programs, editorials, questions of the day and reviews and critiques of Arab press reports," Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' (BBG) Middle East Committee, told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee at the end of April. "We'll try to pinpoint -- and refute -- misinformation in the state-controlled media." Such talk could almost make a body hear the cavalry thudding to the rescue.

Indeed, according to a Washington Times April 26 article, MERN's in-depth news and policy programs were to have begun airing on May 1 in an effort "to recreate the way Radio Free Europe countered Soviet propaganda during the Cold War."

Didn't happen. For reasons that remain unclear, the timetable was ditched and the blueprint suspended. This has caused unexpected repercussions. For example, AM radio broadcasts into Iraq and Iran, via Radio Free Iraq (RFI) and VOA's Farsi service, ended in April as MERN assumed total control of medium-wave transmitters located in Kuwait.

This move abruptly unplugged RFI's nascent AM efforts, begun only last December as a result of Sept. 11, as well as a popular, four-year-old AM format in Iran -- the only "axis of evil" country with a dissident movement to write home about. This means no more AM drive-time for Tehran taxicabs. It also means, with MERN still pumping mainly pop over the airwaves, the United States has unintentionally imposed on these countries a kind of radio silence that short-wave and satellite broadcasts cannot effectively break.

An observer of the wider conflicts that pit the White House and Defense Department against accommodationists in the State Department would automatically blame Foggy Bottom for hitches at MERN, but Mr. Pattiz says no. "We haven't started our editorials yet because we're still doing field research on how they should best be presented," he told me this week, adding that "field research" -- actual focus groups in such cities as Amman, Cairo and Kuwait -- would be completed this summer, with policy programming to begin sometime after that.

Likening his strategy to layering a wedding cake, Mr. Pattiz described the foundation of success as being a mass audience (target group: 25 and under) created by the lure of pulsating pop. American policy, in a form as yet to be field-researched, comes next. Don't be too surprised -- carrying the wedding-cake analogy just a little further -- if such policy emerges in rosette-sized bites. "We cannot talk at these people. We can't pontificate," Mr. Pattiz explained. "We can't create a connection with a listener by telling them a bunch of stuff in a totalitarian manner."

Regrettable choice of words, perhaps, for spreading truth, justice and the American Way. While it remains to be seen how U.S. policy fares in Egyptian focus groups, the need to get the U.S. word out is still urgent. There's a war on, after all, and winning hearts and minds, not just pop fans, is surely part of any real victory.

Or is it? Charlotte Beers, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and ex-officio player on the BBG, recently expressed her doubts: "The part that's disturbing about the phrase 'winning the war,' or 'winning the hearts and minds' is the word 'winning,'" she said last month. "I know it's intended to sound positive, but we need a more modest and substantive goal." Radio Sawa may be a work in progress, but let's hope it doesn't already meet the State Department's expectations.

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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West