Karen Hughes has finished her "listening tour" of three Middle Eastern countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Foreign reviews of this tightly paced trot have varied widely (see John Brown's September 28-29 Public Diplomacy Review) for a lengthy round-up of trip coverage) but major U.S. press outlets have generally been positive.
Hughes' trip, unintentionally modeled on Hillary Clinton's pre-Senate listening tour of New York State, allowed her to be seen listening to a variety of Middle Eastern audiences if not actually to the general public, a fine first step in public diplomacy.
That said, public diplomacy involves persuading foreign citizens that their concerns really are being heard or at least considered, which raises the question of how to attention to the opinions of the great mass of people in the Middle East. Specifically, how could the U.S tailor programs that would not only allow Middle Eastern publics to be heard by U.S. citizens and policymakers, but also hear themselves being heard?
Two possible avenues show up in today's news: Citycapsula in Bogotá and StoryCorps in the U.S.
The L.A. Times' Henry Chu describes Citycapsula in his lede:
She was a young woman with a message, and she wanted the whole city to hear it.
So on a recent afternoon, she marched over to one of Bogotá's busiest street corners, stood before a flimsy-looking cardboard kiosk, punched a green button and addressed the video camera that whirred to life.
"To all publicists: I've had it up to here with seeing butts and breasts. There are more intelligent ways to market a product," she said, her voice full of exasperation. "If you have daughters, sisters, whatever, please think….
"Women, respect yourselves! We have something called a brain, which lasts longer than this and this," she declared, clutching her chest and backside. Then, satisfied with her diatribe, she plunged back into the teeming sidewalk traffic.
That same week, a middle-aged man with a harried look stepped up to the kiosk and delivered a different sort of plea.
"I want to tell all the mothers-in-law of the world, you're very much loved by us sons-in-law," he said a little nervously, with one particular mother-in-law clearly in mind. "But sometimes you're too intense, and you don't support the couple enough…. I love you very much, but you've got to change."
Both appeals were broadcast on television a few days later, beamed into living rooms across this bustling capital of 7 million people. The clips formed part of the hit show "Citycapsula," a weekly compilation of footage of ordinary residents who stop at one of several camera-loaded kiosks around the city and opt to put a few moments of their lives on film.
The Citycapsula method has the virtue of being a quick and cheap way to produce television, and if I've discovered one thing about living among Los Angeles TV producers for the past 16 months, budget rules.
Then there's StoryCorps, which does nearly the same thing with audio clips:
StoryCorps is a national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others' stories in sound.Slightly pricier, more formal, and more narrative-driven to be sure, but if StoryCorps lasts awhile—and heart-warming pieces like the one on NPR's Morning Edition this morning indicate it will—it could provide an interesting take on the American mood (or another country's mood) at given moment in history.
We're here to help you interview your grandmother, your uncle, the lady who's worked at the luncheonette down the block for as long as you can remember—anyone whose story you want to hear and preserve.
To start, we're building soundproof recording booths across the country, called StoryBooths. You can use these StoryBooths to record broadcast-quality interviews with the help of a trained facilitator. Our first StoryBooths opened in New York City's Grand Central Terminal on October 23, 2003. We also have two traveling recording studios, called MobileBooths, which embarked on cross-country tours on May 19, 2005.
We've tried to make the experience as simple as possible: We help you figure out what questions to ask. We handle all the technical aspects of the recording. At the end of the hour-long session, you get a copy of your interview on CD. And thanks to the generous contributions of our supporters, we ask for only a $10 suggested donation.
Since we want to make sure your story lives on for generations to come, we'll also add your interview to the StoryCorps Archive, housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which we hope will become nothing less than an oral history of America.
The StoryCorps or Citycapsula templates could easily be adopted to facilitate U.S. public diplomacy abroad. Recording and archiving technology at U.S. cultural centers overseas combined with dissemination via existing U.S. international broadcasting could give foreign publics input into the U.S. policy process—and potentially create ratings hits in other countries.
Look, people might say, the Americans are showcasing ... us!