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America's cultural offensive By Simon Houpt
America's cultural offensive
Washington hopes to ease foreign-policy woes in the Middle East by wooing hearts and minds with a new Arabic-language radio network, satellite TV channel and glossy monthly magazine. It's the funky side of the war on terror, SIMON HOUPT writes
By SIMON HOUPT
Saturday, August 2, 2003 - Page R1
Toni Braxton is going to save the United States from terrorism. All across the Middle East this week, from Cairo to Baghdad, the R&B singer's 10-year-old soft-rock hit Another Sad Love Song wafted out of taxicabs, cafés and the bedrooms of middle-class teenagers.
To most of the Arabs swaying along to Braxton's warble, maybe the tune was something to help them relax while they sipped their coffee or waited out the endless petroleum lines. To the U.S. government, however, that song is a vital weapon in a war it can't afford to lose.
Braxton is in a new kind of army, standing at attention with Celine Dion, Eric Clapton, Ace of Base and the rapper Coolio, making up a Trojan-horse brigade drafted to seduce young Arab adults into admiring the United States.
Their staging ground is Radio Sawa, a Washington-based Arabic-language radio network heard in most Middle Eastern countries.
This is the funky side of America's war on terror. After conquering the world's movie and TV screens with Hollywood culture and Madison Avenue marketing, the U.S. government is trying to put its competitive advantage in storytelling to a more high-minded purpose.
Along with Radio Sawa, which replaced the old and ignored Voice of America Arabic-language service, the government is throwing its muscle and money behind Hi magazine, a glossy new monthly distributed throughout the region, and a TV network.
The debut issue of Hi, which hit newsstands two weeks ago, looks at the Arab student experience at American universities, a profile of the Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub, and a piece about the sport of sandboarding (more accessible to Arab youth than snowboarding, to be sure).
Last month, Congress voted to give $62-million (U.S.) to the Middle East Television Network, an Arabic-language satellite channel slated to launch by the end of the year.
Its creators are calling it a cross between NBC and CNN. Programming is still being planned, but it will likely include a morning news broadcast like The Today Show, lifestyle programming, women's shows, children's shows, sports, popular American sitcoms and dramas dubbed into Arabic, and an evening news program similar to Nightline.
Many nations engage in cultural diplomacy to raise their profile around the world, including Canada through the Department of Foreign Affairs, but none with the intensity, financial backing, or newfound desperation of the United States. For America, convincing the world it is a benign presence may be a matter of life and death. "We're fighting a war of ideas as much as a war on terror," Tucker Eskew said recently. Eskew is the director of the White House's Office of Global Communications, which President George W. Bush created in January.
Sawa is on the leading edge of its effort. While the old VOA Arabic service could only be heard on shortwave -- which meant that it was barely heard at all -- Sawa is carried on regular AM or FM frequencies licensed by many of the regional governments. (Strangely, it has not been licensed yet by two of America's closest friends, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; Sawa reaches into those countries from powerful transmitters stationed elsewhere.)
Named after the Arabic word for together, Sawa is a boom-box vision of American and Arabic cultures happily nuzzling one another. It is the only radio network in the world that alternates Western and Arabic pop songs, throwing in news and information bursts from an American perspective. Broadcasting from a studio in Washington, where a team of Arab-American journalists co-ordinate with bureaus around the Middle East, the station tries to interact as much as possible with its audience. The occasional feature Sawa Chat, heard between songs, offers man-on-the-street interviews and phoned-in comments about issues of the day, from dating and marriage to politically sensitive discussions about local governments.
As propaganda goes, it's awfully subtle. The aim is to project an image of openness, to give Arab youth an outlet they haven't had before, while reminding them that it has all been brought to them by their friendly neighbourhood U.S. government-sponsored broadcasters.
Tune in to Sawa, as Arab youth increasingly have been doing since it launched in March, 2002, and you'll hear Celine Dion's anthemic I'm Alive bumping up against Lebanese heartthrob Fadel Shaker's Euro-disco hit Ya Ghayeb, then right on into the gouchie gouchie yaya dada swank of Lady Marmalade from Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge. There's a global village thumping from your speakers.
This is supposed to make Arab youth feel better about the Bush administration's continuing support of Israel and its installation of a U.S.-friendly government in Iraq.
The music softens up the audience for a light dose of American-style journalism. "Clearly our policies in the Middle East are not embraced by most of the population, so if you want to attract an audience, you don't lead with policy," explains Norman Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency that oversees all of the U.S.-government-sponsored international broadcasting services.
As the founder and chairman of Westwood One, the largest radio network in the United States, Pattiz rode modern market-research techniques to the peak of the American industry, and he's doing it again in the Middle East.
If you want to know what makes Arab youth tick, head into the heart of New Jersey. About 50 kilometres southwest of Manhattan, in a recently renovated grand Victorian house tucked away on a leafy side street of Somerville, N.J., you'll find Edison Media Research. Clients include The New York Times, the Orlando Magic basketball team, the pay television network HBO, and Radio Sawa.
Through its Middle East affiliates, Edison is bringing a Western approach to Sawa's programming by conducting weekly studies -- focus groups, telephone surveys and other polls -- to help its executives calibrate the music and news to the audience's tastes. The scientific approach is working, according to numbers provided by Edison that show Sawa is the No. 1 radio station in Amman, Jordan, among its target audience of 18 to 30-year-olds.
But the cultural efforts of the U.S. won't be successful, says Columbia University religion professor Peter Awn, because America, "is viewed with enormous suspicion."
Edison's executive vice-president Joe Lenski says those in the region aren't merely suspicious of the United States. "The average 18 to 30-year-old American is a minimal user of media for news, and also very trusting and in a lot of ways naive," Lenski explains. "Those in the U.S. will say, 'It's on the news, so it must be true,' but 18 to 30-year-olds in the Middle East will say, 'If it's on the news, someone must have put it there for a reason. What's the reason?' "
Back in June, 2002, Sawa asked people in its target demographic which radio stations they listened to for news. Sawa barely registered. But a few months later prospects were looking up. By last fall, half of the target audience regularly listened to Sawa, according to numbers provided by Pattiz. Thirty per cent said they found the network's news credible and reliable.
Against that backdrop, then, Sawa is doing all right. Bolstered by the numbers and $35-million in congressional funding, Sawa recently expanded its activities, launching four streams tailored to the different countries in the region, including one dedicated to Iraq and another, Radio Farda, broadcasting in the Farsi language into Iran.
"If you take a look at the media in those countries, what you find are things like hate speech on radio and television, incitement to violence, disinformation, government censorship and journalistic self-censorship," Pattiz says. "Up until Radio Sawa, the U.S. did not really have a horse in this race. So what you have is an opinion of the United States, which is of course at an all-time low, that is pretty much the product of government-controlled media outlets.
"The point is to get our views and the way that we cover the news out there, and to let the people decide for themselves."
Some antagonists aren't thrilled with the United States' increasing cultural activities. Last month, on the day that Voice of America launched a new half-hour Farsi-language TV program, News and Views, into Iran, Cuba responded by jamming the broadcasts. But Fidel Castro isn't the only one who objects; Americans themselves have an ambivalent and thorny history with cultural diplomacy.
Back in 1938 the State Department created a Division of Cultural Relations as a way of bringing American artists out from under the shadow of their more famous European and Russian colleagues. The Division sent thousands of musicians abroad, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. The experience inspired Brubeck and his wife, Iola, to write the musical The Real Ambassadors, which suggested it was odd to be telling the world that America was a beacon of freedom when blacks in the U.S. South were still suffering under segregationist Jim Crow laws. Perhaps the show, which starred Armstrong and his wife Carmen McRae, was too cynical. It never made it to Broadway.
Recognizing there was a revolution under way in the fine-art world, the Division organized painting exhibitions abroad and even began collecting works by artists such as Milton Avery and Stuart Davis. Then a few politicians who didn't like modern art declared that public money shouldn't go toward supporting private artists, and that was the end of that. The White House restored support and in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella and others won acclaim at the Venice Biennale. The support was short-lived; Congress again declared the arts an elite waste of money and cut the funding.
But that's because those painters were engaged in arts for art's sake. Art with a political purpose, well, that was something the politicians could wrap their vote-seeking heads around. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. government, through the Central Intelligence Agency, channelled millions of dollars into cultural efforts designed to rebuff the communist threat and present America as a free and democratic place.
Among the agency's beneficiaries was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a group of anticommunist intellectuals who worked to discredit Stalinist apologists in the U.S. artistic community. The CIA also paid for the publication of more than 1,000 books (the full list is still classified), and operations such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast anticommunist messages into the Eastern Bloc countries. The CIA was removed from those activities in the late 1960s when their connection was discovered.
Mindful of the image of the Ugly American abroad, those behind the new initiatives are trying to be more sensitive to the cultures they hope to engage. In some of the stricter Muslim countries, where gender segregation is the norm, Edison Research conducts separate focus groups for men and women. Sawa won't play unedited Eminem tracks, to avoid offending conservative listeners. "If we're trying to create a connection between ourselves and our audience, we have to be very sensitive to their cultural sensibilities," says Norman Pattiz.
Still, Abdallah Schleifer scoffs at efforts such as Sawa. Schleifer, who grew up Jewish in Queens, N.Y., before converting to Islam, moved to the Middle East in 1970 as a reporter for NBC News. He is now the director of the Adham Center for TV Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he teaches primarily upwardly mobile middle-class students with an affinity for Western lifestyles.
"I don't think Radio Sawa is going to cut any ice with people who feel their culture and heritage is threatened by the West and by America, by those who would be sympathetic to Islamist movements," Schleifer says. "It'll cut ice with people who are already engaged by Western culture. The irony is, the fact that it engages them doesn't mean it's going to make them pro-American. Just because you go for American rap doesn't make you pro-American.
"I don't want to fault them, they're spending all that money," Schleifer continues, "but those who like Sawa and say, 'Yeah, who wants to fight America? It's great, it's the future, I wish I could be American' -- they're not going to be in the vanguard of liberalism. They're going to be at the disco, dancing. So in a sense it gets nowhere.
"Radio Sawa is not going to produce battalions marching to a political tune."
Schleifer suggests a different tack. "What's always sold people here to America is the quality of American education, American medicine, American science and technology -- whereas MTV, which may get to their kids, appalls them. This is one of the weird things, to hear the U.S. administration -- which rests on a silent majority of churchgoers -- talking about American culture in its Hollywood and New York television manifestation, which is utterly devoted to undermining the values of a conservative Christian society."
Like many others, Schleifer says the best thing America can do to convince the rest of the world of its beneficent intent is to expand scholarship programs to U.S. colleges and universities. But the country is instead going in the other direction, making it more difficult for foreign students to study in the United States, through visa restrictions and other bureaucratic hurdles.
Maysan Marouf, a 23-year-old masters student in environmental sciences at the American University of Beirut, is frustrated by the fact that cultural diplomacy only ever seems to go one way. "Diplomacy implies dialogue," she writes in a recent e-mail exchange. "No dialogue is ever one-sided. I think the Americans should start to listen instead of telling us about their perspective, because their perspective is already widely known: We hear about it on the news, and Hollywood is a very powerful tool that markets the American view."
Marouf recently sponsored a screening at the university of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, which drew about 100 students. Though the film didn't receive theatrical distribution in Lebanon, its popularity on video spiked after Moore's anti-Bush screed at the Oscars endeared him to Arabs who were against the war.
"Nothing can truly change things unless the U.S. changes its foreign policies. I don't think Arabs can be fooled so easily," Marouf writes. "MTV is very popular here. When I was about 12, such programs made me dream about going to the U.S. But then I grew up and realized how superficial these programs are."