Winning the War of Ideas; Washington Should Back Private Broadcasting

Article excerpt

Byline: David Hoffman and Helle Dale, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The world still does not trust us. According to new findings by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the image of the United States has improved slightly since last year but remains decidedly "negative." Large percentages of people continue to express deep resentment of America, particularly in the Muslim world. The Pew study is the latest in a string of blue-ribbon reports, commissions and public hearings about America's failure to win hearts and minds. The problem is not new. Nor are the solutions up to date.

Yes, we need more Arab linguists. Yes, we need to expand our foreign visitors program and upgrade our Foreign Service training programs. And yes, public diplomacy has a role to play. Some demand that we spend more money on U.S. international broadcasting, although we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars already in Arab-language satellite channels that are often ignored or dismissed as crude propaganda tools.

America should not be losing the war of ideas. It is bewildering that a country that invented nearly every revolution in communications, from the modern postal system to television and the Internet, has utterly failed to get across its message. Ironically, the quintessential free-enterprise society has been trying to solve its public diplomacy conundrum by relying on big government. What distinguished American media and made them the engine of the global communication revolution was precisely their foundation in the private sector. While Europe and most of the rest of the world relied on stodgy state broadcasters and the Soviet-bloc-built government-run monopolies, America unleashed a worldwide information revolution built on private independent media.

Yet after September 11, we reverted to clumsy attempts to tailor our message to the Muslim world with marketing and programs produced by the government. Few of these attempts have been fruitful. Nor do they reflect the instincts of a confident nation. What is needed is a free-enterprise approach that is based on good old American values of free speech, entrepreneurship and the engagement of the private sector.

This is a great time to expand private, nongovernmental television and radio broadcasting in the Muslim world. Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan have recently made significant moves to liberalize their broadcast media. Even Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken some tentative steps in this direction. Iraq's interim government passed the most modern media law of any country in the region. Experience throughout the former Soviet Union has shown that new independent commercial stations, especially when their employees are given journalism and business training, are significantly more objective and have far less of a political agenda than state broadcasters. …