Pragmatic Propaganda

by Bud Goodall

In recent Congressional hearings on U.S. attempts to win popular support in the Arab world, the continuing controversy surrounding al Hurra dominated the discussion. al Hurra, a television network financed to broadcast pro-U.S. messages throughout the Middle East, was created in 2003 to counter the perceived negative influences of al Jazeera on U.S. policies and actions in the region. The issues raised during these hearings are important ones for understanding the failures of U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East, but the debate over free speech versus censorship misses the salient strategic communication point.

From the perspective of some critics in the U.S., the problem is that the al Hurra network often features speeches by Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, as well as “other terrorist groups.” Their broadcasts included a 30-minute speech in December by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah as well as coverage of the Iranian conference denying the Holocaust. Speaking in defense of those broadcasts, the al Hurra executive replied that the station also features the live broadcasts of the speeches of President Bush, a frank retort that led to laughter on both sides of the hearing chamber.

There are other communication problems that plague al Hurra. Chief among them is that the senior executives aren’t fluent in Arabic, meaning that they often don’t know what is being said in the broadcasts. Nor are there enough State Department Arabic speakers to place in Middle Eastern posts to monitor the network. Radio Free Europe promoted U.S. values and policies in many languages using native speakers and popular resistance leaders throughout the Cold War. But al Hurra suffers from a lack of native speakers willing to support U.S. policies and a plethora of resistance leaders—read terrorists, insurgents, duly elected but anti-U.S. speakers—to make their case.

Joaquin F. Blaya, a senior al Hurra executive, in an interview with a New York Times reporter, indicated that “al Hurra would lose all credibility if it did not give air time to people who disagree with American policy.” He continued by pointing out that “it was ironic that the government was seeking to promote American values like democracy and a free press while at the same time trying to censor what is shown in the station. That’s the difference between a free media and propaganda,” he said.

Al Hurra represents a major U.S. public diplomacy initiative in the Middle East. The controversies surrounding what its producers choose to broadcast must be understood and informed by a more informed theoretical framework that moves the discussion away from free speech and censorship to how influence functions in the reception of those broadcasts by various audiences in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East.

Principles

From a U.S. legal perspective, the case of al Hurra is one that pits concerns over censorship against the Constitutional guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press. In this regard Robert E. Drechsel writes: “the Supreme Court has found censorship to be an especially intolerable restriction on freedom of expression. The term censorship might encompass almost any restriction on the dissemination or content of expression, but most fundamentally it means prior restraint—any government scheme for screening either who may speak or the content of what people wish to say before the utterance. Although the Court has never held prior restraint to be inherently unconstitutional, it has emphasized that “any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity” (Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan 1963, p. 70).

But from a pragmatic communication theory perspective on propaganda, the issue is less one of prior restraint and more one of the actual effectiveness of a message strategy deployed to influence audiences. Free speech refers to the legal right to speak; propaganda is the means used to achieve influence.

Recent scholarship recognizes the power of mass communication to shape audiences’ perceptions but blurs the distinctions between what public diplomacy expert John Brown calls “moralist and neutralist” views on propaganda. Similarly, Nancy Snow, a former State Department spokesperson, has written extensively on the idea of propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Both of these perspectives provide tools to critically analyze propaganda, but are deficient in their appreciation of the role of audiences in determining the credibility and value of messages they know are designed to influence them.

Viewed this way, the intended audience’s interpretation of whether the views expressed help or harm a strategic goal is a more salient communication policy issue than whether the information is true, partially true, or untrue. Moralists may object—and rightly so—but neutralists recognize that ideas and information deployed for the purposes of influence are never without partiality or partisanship. An audience-centered perspective on locally-empowered interpretations of message that embraces the neutralist view of propaganda fits the model of pragmatic complexity.

Analysis

Put simply, if the expressed public diplomacy goal of al Hurra is to gain influence capable of generating support for U.S. values and policies in the region, the measure of its effectiveness is a rise in those levels of support. Clearly, according to a recent Pew Research report, that has not happened.

Trying to “control the message” by controlling the content of the al Hurra broadcasts is a flawed approach to improving the effectiveness of this U.S. propaganda tool. As the model of pragmatic complexity demonstrates, a simplistic message-based strategy does not recognize that success depends on the local reception and interpretation of those broadcasts, and that the credibility of the messenger—in this case, the network—strongly influences those interpretations. Because the U.S. suffers from historically low status and credibility in the region, restrictions on broadcasts to only those that reflect a positive spin on U.S. policies is doomed to failure.

One tenet of the American Civil Liberties Union is that the correction for the form of propaganda known as “hate speech” is not to restrict that speech, but instead to encourage more speech. This principle accords with pragmatic complexity, as it recognizes that multiple messages emerging from a diverse array of sources reinforce the value of democratic processes. It also empowers those who have felt marginalized and silenced to add their voices to the mix. One goal of the U.S. public diplomacy strategy is to encourage citizens in the Middle East who are favorable to our values and policies to speak out, and al Hurra affords that opportunity while at the same time providing space for opposing views. Given these facts, attempts to restrict broadcasts to only those that support U.S. policies is inevitably counter-productive. Ambiguity in public diplomacy, not uniform and linear message strategy, must inform future efforts to understand and deploy resources.

The lack of Arabic language fluency remains a critical flaw in the communication preparedness and policies of the U.S. government, and the Department of State should provide language experts to this region of the world (not simply for the purpose of monitoring al Hurra). But whether these experts are available or not, we must rely on strategic communication strategies that do not further diminish our credibility. That requires a shift in our thinking. We need to open channels of communication, not close them.

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