Britney vs. The Terrorists
In the spring of 2003, across a field of rubble in Baghdad, a young Iraqi journalist accosted me and demanded: "Why did you stop broadcasting substance and substitute music?" The year before the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the government entity in charge of radio broadcasting, had shut down the Voice of America's Arabic service, and it ended most of its Farsi service in 2003. Voice of America had been broadcasting features, discussions of issues and editorials reflecting U.S. policies. But now it filled 50 minutes of each hour on Arabic-language Radio Sawa and most of the time on Persian-language Radio Farda with Eminem, J. Lo and Britney Spears.
This change in format provoked other angry questions: Are Americans playing music because they are afraid to tell the truth? Do they not have a truth to tell? Or do they not consider us worth telling the truth to?
We did not fight communism with pop music. In fact, during the Cold War, America used its government media institutions to broadcast its ideas and beliefs. So why are we not refashioning those successful broadcast strategies and trying to spread our ideas in the Muslim world, the breeding ground of much of the world's terrorist threats?
Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have shared their answer: Radio Sawa's progenitor, media mogul Norman Pattiz, was still serving his Clinton-appointed term in 2002 when he told the New Yorker that "it was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall." (Not Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, of course.) President Bush's appointees did not improve the board's outlook. In October 2002, Ken Tomlinson, then the board's new chairman, approvingly quoted his son as saying Spears's music "represents the sounds of freedom." It seems that the board transformed the "war of ideas" into the battle of the bands.
So, is MTV winning the "war of ideas"? After years of the United States broadcasting Britney Spears to the Levant, the average radical mullah has not exactly succumbed to apoplexy or come to love democracy. A State Department inspector general's draft report on Radio Sawa (the final report was never issued) found that"it is difficult to ascertain Radio Sawa's impact in countering anti-American views and the biased state-run media of the Arab world." Or, as one expert panel assembled to assess its value concluded, "Radio Sawa failed to present America to its audience."
The BBG has achieved part of its objective in gaining large youth audiences in some areas of the Middle East, such as in Amman, Jordan, where it has an FM transmitter. But as the Jordanian journalist Jamil Nimri told me: "Radio Sawa is fun, but it's irrelevant." We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music, so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way? The condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the audience that we should wish to influence the most -- those who think.
Some, of course, suspect that the United States is consciously attempting to subvert the morals of Arab youth. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes told columnist Cal Thomas in December that our "view of freedom is sometimes seen as licentiousness. . . . And that is only exacerbated by the movies and the television and some of the music and the lyrics that they see exported from America." Especially, Hughes might have added, since the BBG, on which she sits as an ex officio member, promotes this very image.
Becoming a caricature of ourselves is bad policy and bad public diplomacy. The job of U.S. international broadcasting is to present, before we are attacked, what much of the world saw only after Sept. 11 -- the sacrifice, bravery and piety of the American people -- as part of a complete picture. By presenting this aspect of our culture, we might even prevent the miscalculations of those who believe they should attack the United States or can do so with impunity because we are a weak, irreligious, morally corrupt country.
We need radio broadcasting in the "war of ideas," but it has to deal in ideas to be effective. The "MTV message" is something that commercial broadcasting can do and would do better than government-funded radio. Government broadcasting is needed when the United States must communicate a message to a key audience that that audience otherwise would not hear.
Music may have a role in this kind of broadcast mission, but only if it is part of a larger, idea-based strategy. Where are the ideas that will help us win this war, and why are they not being deployed by all available means to the places that most need to hear them? Isn't it time to change our tune?
The writer was the 25th director of the Voice of America and was senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information during Operation Iraqi Freedom.