It's Sweeps Month in Iraq
It was the most expensive advertising campaign in world history: We spent billions in Iraq on bombs designed to dramatize the awesome invincibility and pulverizing humanity of American military power. There were casualties, yes, thousands of them, but in our hearts our aim was to kill only public statuary and bad ideas.
In any case, each precision-guided spokesbomb had its own strategic message to convey. "Saddam Hussein is repressing you!" roared a Tomahawk cruise missile. "State-sponsored terrorism is bad!" boomed a Massive Ordnance Air Burst bomb, with an authority not even James Earl Jones could match. "Mobile bio-weapons labs will not be tolerated!"
The liberation of Iraq has since shifted into a less symbolic phase, and we're beginning to use more traditional communications techniques there. The collapse of Saddam's regime also meant the collapse of Iraq's state-controlled newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels. Now, various U.S. entities, including the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency that produces Voice of America and other government-sponsored radio and TV programming for international audiences, are all working to fill the media vacuum in Iraq.
Newspapers and TV broadcasts lack the immediate utility of electricity, water, food, and healthcare, of course, but in the long run, Iraqi news media will play a huge role in determining the course of the country's reconstruction. According to Reuters, the Iraqi Communist Party was the first entity to start publishing a newspaper in the wake of Saddam's fall. While that hasn't helped the Party's fortunes much -- the U.S. still ignored it when arranging a recent meeting of Iraq's various political factions -- a man named Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi had better luck. He started broadcasting from a radio station in Baghdad and declared himself the city's mayor, and until U.S. troops took him into custody after two weeks of self-appointed rule, some of his fellow citizens actually believed him.
Iranian Shiite clerics appear to have similar ideas. Al-Alam, a TV channel produced by the Iranian government, is perhaps the most-watched source of news in Iraq at the moment. Reuters reported that its correspondents "became celebrities on the streets of Baghdad" during the war; currently the channel "[emphasizes] the role of fundamentalist Shiite Islam while portraying the fledgling U.S. administration in the country as a disaster for common Iraqis." Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon finds Al-Alam's influence increasingly troubling.
Alas, the Pentagon's primary media offering to date, a radio show called "The Voice of New Iraq" that airs on an AM station in Umm Kasr, doesn't sound likely to win many loyal listeners. According to the Associated Press, the show counsels children to avoid "approaching military vehicles" and warns them to stay away from "leftover war objects that could explode."
That's good advice, no doubt, but what makes for better radio: inflammatory rhetoric directed at an enemy oppressor, or proscriptive public-service announcements that remind Iraqis of the damage coalition forces have inflicted upon their country?
A similar quandary awaits the Middle East Television Network, a government-funded 24-hour news channel that the BBG is currently developing. The goal is to create America-friendly programming that Iraqis and other Middle East residents find just as compelling as outlets like Al-Aman and Al Jazeera. Unfortunately, the most dependable route to news media success -- find a liberal scapegoat and roast it over a hot fire of invective and innuendo -- can't work out well in the Middle East for the United States, because there, we're the liberal scapegoat! And while it's in our interest to concentrate on positive news, that's ratings death: Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Al Jazeera don't attract millions of viewers and listeners by telling them how well things are going.
As the Pentagon, the State Department, and the BBG all try to figure out how to develop news media that doesn't feel like propaganda, there's one other factor they might consider: Only about 10 percent of Iraqi citizens actually own TVs. An even smaller number own satellite dishes, and presumably, computer ownership is also relatively rare. For $1 billion, however, or roughly the cost of a half dozen Patriot missiles, the U.S. could provide Iraq with several million TVs, satellite dishes, and computers. A gift of such magnitude could backfire -- the Iraqis mightly simply use this equipment to watch more Al-Alam and Al Jazeera. But at the same time, how better to illustrate our commitment to an Iraqi culture where information flows freely?
Despite the success of Al-Alam in Iraq, the Iranian government obviously fears genuinely free expression: Currently, it's cracking down on bloggers like Sina Motallebi, who was recently thrown in jail there for sharing his uncensored opinions about such incendiary topics as Michael Jordan's retirement. In other words, even the possibility of candid political expression frightens the Iranians.
We, on the hand, should encourage as much Iraqi blogging on Michael Jordan as possible. And hopefully we'll encourage candid Iraqi blogging on Jay Garner's performance, and on other sensitive subjects too. So far, however, the U.S. entities working on Iraqi media initiatives appear to have little interest in the Internet. But of course it's the Internet where they could probably promote American perspectives most effectively, in ways that couldn't simply be written off as blatant boosting. The Web, after all, allows users to talk back, so even propaganda inevitably evolves into dialogue.
While dialogue isn't the Bush Administration's preferred mode of communication, sometimes war demands sacrifice. And, ultimately, democracy can't be built on Tom Brokaw lip-synching Arabic, or even on genuine Iraqis reading from U.S.-approved scripts. Instead, it will only flourish if we help the Iraqis create media outlets that truly give them their own voice.
G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.