Monday, January 31, 2005

Beacon No. 21: Interview with Joshua Fouts


Joshua Fouts is executive director at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. On a recent Friday morning he took an hour to speak with me about the Center and on public diplomacy generally. This is part one of an edited transcript of our hour-long conversation; part two follows tomorrow.

Paul Kretkowski: So why a Center on Public Diplomacy now? What spurred it at USC?

Joshua Fouts: Well it's actually an idea we've been working on for the past couple of years. I would say that the first steps took place about two years ago when the Annenberg school's board of counselors committed to public diplomacy as being one of the Annenberg school's key areas of focus, the creation of a Center being that first step. Ever since I left the Voice of America in 1996, and Geoff Cowan was the dean of the Annenberg school and former head of the Voice of America, and more importantly I would say the spiritual leader of the Center on Public Diplomacy, our notion was to find some formalized way to address this, a topic that had not been well-researched, we felt, or received much attention, certainly during the years that we were at VOA.

One of the many things we noticed when we were at VOA was that—and this was before USIA had been dismantled, [before] any of the formalized U.S. government structures had taken the hits, was that—and this has been endemic to the culture of public diplomacy as a whole, I think, for the last 30-40 years—is that there is no domestic constituency for U.S. public diplomacy efforts. And so when you're doing public diplomacy, say you're with the Voice of America in our case, and you want to ask questions about how effective are your efforts, it's a very difficult question to answer. …

Well needless to say, after September 11th, three years after we declared we had won the war of public opinion and dismantled the U.S. Information Agency, there was a large focus on 'why is it that people hate the United States so much,' and this really gave us the opportunity to really sort of focus all these issues into one centralized organization . ...

PK: So September 11 was a catalyst but not a …

JF: Absolutely, I think it was a catalyst for opening the eyes of that missing link which is that domestic constituency that we can't ever seem to find. Now all of a sudden we had a domestic constituency. We had academics, scholars, policymakers, all saying 'why do people hate us.' And it gave us an opportunity to say, okay, let's ask that question. Let's ask it in a very broad way. Let's ask what can be done to meet that challenge and answer that question, and set up a formalized infrastructure and research plan that will help to continue to raise the visibility and answer those kinds of questions.

PK: So what's your funding structure like, in a broad sense? Who is your constituency?

JF: We have a very small gift from the dean's discretionary fund. These are effectively start-up funds to hire a staff person [and] to bring in a couple of fellows such as we brought in, J.C. Herz being one. …

We have a couple of research projects right now that are funded by outside parties. We have our Middle East Media Project which is funded by the Schuman Center for Media and Democracy, and it is a one-year grant to examine the interface of public diplomacy and journalism in the Middle East, and how is it that journalism has an effect on public diplomacy per se, how it's perceived as a tool. It's being run specifically by a journalist living in the Middle East. We have another small grant which looks at the role of new technologies in public diplomacy, and specifically we're looking at massively multiplayer online games as a venue in which a certain audience from around the world is coming together, sharing ideas, meeting and our theory is, developing opinions about themselves, about each other, their other cultures, and communities. So the short answer to your question, coming back to that once again, is we're on a two-year gift from the dean to be used as start-up money, and we're seeking funding for either an endowment or research projects to help support the research in the Center.

PK: Who's signing up in your student body? You're only teaching graduate classes, is that right?

JF: At the moment we're only teaching graduate classes. There are two undergraduate public diplomacy classes but our intent—actually, let me back up a little bit. The background on that is that we are in the process of applying to create a master's in public diplomacy ; the graduate and professional curriculum committee has not signed it yet on the dotted line, but it's going through the process and we're optimistic that that's going to be approved. That said, we have around 40 students who are affiliated with the center, who come from existing graduate programs at USC. And these are students who have been coming to our events who have expressed an interest in getting involved in our research projects. They come from, anywhere from the Annenberg School's Global Communication program which has a relationship with the London School of Economics to the Marshall School of Business, whether they're graduate students interested in the role of NGOs as private-sector entities in public diplomacy.

PK: I guess you have a couple of exchange students from the Fletcher School at Tufts.

JF: Yeah, that was interesting. Anna Tiedeman came to us last fall. She had a hunger for public diplomacy, had written her master's thesis on Charlotte Beers [download PDF from here] and her efforts as undersecretary of state of public diplomacy. Actually it's up on the Web site; we have a page on the Web site dedicated to hosting student material and, because our belief is so few people are studying this topic and there's such a hunger for information about it . There should be a venue for people to access and learn from what they're finding, even if it's not written by a top, full-tenured scholar at a higher-learning institution. So we've framed it appropriately so that academics and scholars know who's written this, but we don't want to discount it as not being valid or useful or relevant to the public diplomacy community at large. So [Anna] came to USC because she couldn't find any public diplomacy courses at Fletcher.

JF: So. Since there's not yet an available master's in public diplomacy we have graduate students in journalism, broadcast journalism students who have a passion for international journalism who might be potential candidates or employees for the Voice of America or other international broadcasting outlets. We have MBA candidates getting an MBA this spring. We have a global communications master's program, people who spent a year at the London School of Economics who came back to Annenberg for a year. We have communication management students who are in the graduate program here, who are looking to go to communication department employment in any number of private-sector employments. We have students who are in the entertainment communication track who are interested in the export of U.S. culture in the form of entertainment, examining that as a public diplomacy aspect. We have people in our strategic public relations graduate programs—actually we have graduate students who are in the military …

PK: I saw one of those.

JF: Yeah, Daniel King, he's a major. We have a number of students who are getting Ph.D.s, three in communications and two in international relations. Somebody was saying to me the other day that the beauty of public diplomacy is that it really synthesizes everything. Certainly it can capture a lot of different areas of interest and I think the diverse student body that's participating in the Center highlights that.

PK: It almost sounds like a Manhattan Project. I mean there was no discipline of nuclear physics at the time, so you had applied engineering, theoretical physics, practical physics, and then the guys who ran the drill presses and lathes saying, "We can't do things that finely, we can't machine things to that tolerance," and having to invent ways to do that.

JF: You know, that's the real challenge. From an academic standpoint and being based at a university where we're doing this faculty search where the university is committed to hiring two full-time faculty positions in public diplomacy. The challenge here is that no one for the last 30 years, I mean outside of say a handful of people, has been studying public diplomacy. And when I say public diplomacy, that in and of itself is a vague term. And who have we found? Nicholas Cull at the University of Leicester, who we invited out for a job talk last week, who is a candidate for the position. He's a historian, though; he's not a public-opinion researcher, he doesn't do quantitative methodology to look at what people think of other countries and how they think about them and how to look at that critically; he looks at the historical use of public diplomacy tools and he's an historian. So that's but one slice of the pie. But as you say, this is a field that also would benefit from scholars who are quantitative methodologists, who are communication theorists, rhetoreticians, new technologists if you will, people who are thinking about ways that types of new technologies that are going to be built that are going to create new ways that people are going to interact and communicate.

The big challenge is, you have all these areas that could fall under the rubric of public diplomacy or certainly could contribute to it, and we've found one person who's said, "I've studied public diplomacy," and that's a historian.

PK: If you look at his CV …

JF: Yeah.

PK: … He also writes about Doctor Who and the Daleks. And that would be considered pretty way out there in the halls of government. I think it's good that he's got broad interests that change over time.

JF: Yeah. And most exciting from my perspective is that he's coming out with a book which will be a sort of definitive history of the U.S. Information Agency. He's interviewed every living and now many dead former directors at the USIA and it's going to be published by Cambridge University Press.

But the other point I wanted to highlight, something you're probably aware of is, public diplomacy fell out of favor as far as a field of research in which to study, partly because it used to be called "propaganda studies." If you were studying propaganda, particularly in the U.S., the implication was that you were in cahoots with the government some way, and that would disqualify you from having a level of academic integrity. And so, it gets back to the early point of what we saw at VOA, that it was a lack of resources for us to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts, and part of that is that there's been no dedicated academic effort to study this. And that also gets back to your original question of "Why now?" as well.

PK: On the subject of international broadcasting, there is an inherent problem with VOA or its brethren and sistren, trying to measure what their audience is, what their effectiveness is. They have an incentive to pump up the numbers. I'm not saying anyone has been doing that maliciously or greedily. But do you propose to take over the role of doing some of that stuff from a distance and saying, 'Well, we're not involved with them, so our figures are going to be authoritative?' Are you going to try and do those types of quantitative studies, who's listening to Radio Sawa, Al-Hurra, all of those?

JF: Well what we'd like to do is to try to evaluate the researchers. And that's a big challenge. So one of the projects we're working on right now is pulling together the research to actually evaluate the effectiveness of various effectiveness and modeling tools. And that's an enormous task.

PK: You're evaluating the evaluators.

JF: We're not presently evaluating any. We're in the initial steps of trying to pull together a community of people who do this, and we would work in conjunction with researchers. What happens in the government, and I'm sure you've seen this, is say you have the National Endowment for Democracy: They give money to an NGO, like Reporters Without Borders or something, and effectively they entrust Reporters Without Borders with the responsibility of proving their own effectiveness to NED. So NED then has a record of how well they've done. But that job is in the hands of Reporters Without Borders. And so in many ways they, along with your VOA contracting with their in-house researcher and the BBC contracting with their in-house research teams, become the record of choice and also become the experts in that. I

In no way do I want to discount any of those people, but we would like to create an environment in which groups like that can come together and discuss methodology and really make it more of a transparent system so people can learn and help improve the craft of determining effectiveness in public diplomacy. So we're not very far along other than 'this is an idea.' We've been putting together people and we have a desire to contribute to that. We have some researchers in-house who are interested in taking a leadership role.

PK: The reason I ask is that you see figures for penetration for U.S. international broadcasting in the Middle East and they're actually quite good on a regional basis—it looks like they're getting some traction, people are listening to them at least some of the time. But you really hear a relentless drumbeat from most of the media about how ineffective the programs are. And when I try and talk with people about this they say, 'Of course they're telling you it's working, of course they're telling you there's penetration .' I'm just wondering who if anyone is attempting to be the Nielsen or the Gallup—I know Gallup is in the Middle East.

JF: Right, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors has contracted with Nielsen to produce the ratings for Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra, but I think what you're actually illustrating is, I don't know that I distrust the figures they're putting out. I think what we have are different policies, or different philosophies on what determines an effective international broadcasting public diplomacy strategy. Radio Sawa has something like a 40 percent listener base according to the latest Nielsen figures of this past summer, in Jordan. But it's distinctly different from the kind of public affairs-only broadcasting that VOA Arabic used to do, or that BBC Arabic does. I think the real question that should be asked is, Does listenership translate into effectiveness and effective policy? And I think the media is fair to criticize that. I don't feel like we're in a position yet to point fingers at anyone. I think I would say personally and I think Geoff Cowan has echoed this as well, is 'let a thousand flowers bloom .' You know, keep a VOA Arabic as much as you can afford it; keep a Radio Sawa; attempt to engage people on as many different levels and social strata as possible.

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