Clinton: U.S. losing global public-relations battle - to 'Baywatch' and wrestling

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; A08

Even as it seeks to influence events in Libya and the rest of the Middle East, the United States is losing the crucial war for world opinion, its message distorted by popular culture and drowned out by Arab-language news media, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

So warped is the U.S. image in many parts of the world that some people regard the United States as a land of bikini-clad women and professional wrestlers, said Clinton, whose State Department is increasingly using Twitter and other social media as a way of getting out unfiltered messages in the Middle East and other parts of the developing world.

"We are in an information war, and we're losing that war," the nation's top diplomat said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Clinton's stark portrayal of America's public-relations deficit came during questioning by senators about the Obama administration's $47 billion 2012 budget request for diplomacy and development.

The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), asked Clinton whether she would press for a more assertive role for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that supervises Voice of America, Radio Liberty and other U.S.-funded international broadcasters.

"This is still a great force of diplomacy, to get our message across," Lugar said.

In her response, Clinton lamented the decline of the network of broadcast outlets that reached hundreds of millions of listeners in communist countries during the Cold War. After the Berlin Wall fell, dollars and transmitters were dramatically cut, and "unfortunately we are paying a big price for it," Clinton said.

Since then, Arabic-language cable channels are filling the gap in the Middle East, shaping popular views of the United States held by millions of Arab-speakers, including many of those who are taking to the streets in Middle Eastern capitals, Clinton said. New English-language broadcasts by the Chinese and even the Russians are hitting the airwaves, and meanwhile "we're cutting back. The BBC is cutting back," she said.

While Hollywood movies and television are pervasive around the world, they mostly serve to worsen the distortion, Clinton said. She recalled meeting an Afghan general whose impressions of Americans had been informed entirely by popular TV shows such as "Baywatch" and pro wrestling.

"The only thing he thought about Americans was that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis," she said.

To counter the trend, State Department officials recently have begun investing heavily in social media, launching Twitter sites in Arabic and Farsi. The push comes amid White House efforts to elevate Internet freedom as a core policy, actively opposing efforts to limit Internet access in the Middle East and elsewhere. State Department officials are working on plans to spend $30 million on Internet freedom projects.

But while social networking sites are important, U.S. officials must continue to find ways to communicate using traditional media, Clinton said.

"Most people still get their news from TV and radio," she said.

Clinton also warned that the United States is losing the race for global influence in other arenas as China forges economic and energy ties with more nations. She cited China's efforts to push ExxonMobil aside for rights to a $15 billion natural gas project in Papua New Guinea.

"China is in there every day in every way, trying to figure out how it's going to come in behind us, come in under us," Clinton said.

She said proposed cuts in aid and diplomacy will further undermine U.S. efforts to keep American firms competitive in the developing world.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company