Monday, February 09, 2009

"Media as Global Diplomat"


House-hunting has kept me from commenting sooner on last Tuesday's "Media as Global Diplomat" session, put on by USIP on the breathtaking seventh floor of the Newseum. A few brief notes:

Ted Koppel moderated and told a story I'd heard him use before: A BBC documentary heightened U.S. policymakers' concern about Somali starvation in the early 1990s. The U.S. sent troops there, with an outcome we all remember (1x U.S. troops died, roughly 50x Somalis died, Pres. Clinton pulled everyone out). As a result, the U.S. and other nations refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Koppel tells this story to illustrate the power of unintended consequences.

Amb. Edward Djerejian was the first to state what it had been unwise to say during the Bush administration: Policy makes up 80 percent of other publics' perceptions of U.S., while our explanations of that policy make up just 20 percent.

Amb. James Glassman, the former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was so in command of his facts and such a realist that I'm sorry he, like Robert Gates, wasn't just kept on at State. Start with our goals, Glassman urged: What are we trying to do? He also noted that the U.S. "can achieve a lot even without people liking us"; respect, he seemed to be saying, should precede affection.

But it was James Zogby who really impressed me: I'm paraphrasing here, but he felt free to say that repeating the word "water" slowly enough in Mexico so that the poor, dumb foreigners will understand is unlikely to get you a glass of agua. He also took poor, abused Charlotte Beers to task by saying, "You don't need to 'brand' America, it's already branded."

But because of that brand--what other people think of American values--expectations of U.S. behavior are very high. "People want to like us, they want to believe in us, and we continue to hurt them," Zogby said.

Google director of global public policy and government Andrew McLaughlin provided some unintended comic relief by trying to convince the group that he was from the future, where apparently there are no radio or television, only the Internet. U.S. efforts that revolve around an "authoritative speaker and unwashed masses will fail," he intoned, adding that he found the whole conversation about what to do with U.S. radio and TV broadcasting "stale." I won't go further into McLaughlin except to say the jeans they wear in the future look very sturdy.

A videoconference with Oscar Morales, credited with the Facebook campaign that brought millions into Colombia's streets to protest the FARC, had some technical glitches but Morales still managed the audience a hit of the possibilities of grassroots, self-organizing civic action.

In the audience was Amb. Cynthia Schneider (former envoy to the Netherlands), who noted that the mere idea of merit-based competition such as American Idol--duplicated several times already in the Middle East--was radical. Another speaker noted that Beijing attempted to suppress mobile-phone voting on a Chinese Idol-type program for a couple years before giving up and allowing it to happen.

Edward Borgerding, CEO of Abu Dhabi Media Co., outlined the problem traditional media face: Not only are non-traditional media taking share from traditional broadcasters, the total number of dollars in the media system overall may be shrinking.

I was surprised by Smita Singh, director of the Global Development Program at the Hewlett Foundation, and MTV's president of global digital media Mika Salmi. The two of them convinced me that large philanthropic NGOs are much bigger do-gooders on the world stage than I'd thought, and focus on amplifying their impacts through partnerships with for-profit media. (Salmi's company partners with the Kaiser foundation, for example, on an anti-AIDS program in Africa.)

Finally, I had to leave before the screening of the 1982 Lebanon War-focused Waltz with Bashir, but my colleague Cady Susswein seemed to find it worthwhile, a "beautifully constructed cultural piece dealing with lingering emotions from war memories and Israeli guilt."

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