No. 9,
Fall/Winter 2002
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An Interview with Ambassador Chris Ross

  Chris Ross, Special Coordinator for Public Diplomacy, has held a succession of important posts at the State Department, including Coordinator for Counterterrorism (1998), Ambassador to Syria (1991-98), and Ambassador to Algeria (1988-91). Sarah J. Sullivan spoke to Ambassador Ross in Washington DC about the US government's attempts to send a message to the Muslim World.

Sarah Sullivan: What is the essence of the message that you feel needs to be conveyed to the Arab world?

Ambassador Chris Ross: I think that the essence of the message is that American policy has attempted to be balanced and fair, despite the perceptions of many, many people in the Arab world. Apart from that, the message is to remind people that there are a number of values that we and the peoples of the Middle East share, be it family, respect for faith, a desire for education, etc. So it's on the one hand an attempt to clarify and explain our policies, and on the other hand a search for common ground and common values.

Sullivan: There's a new book by James Zogby, published by the Arab Thought Foundation and Zogby International, which found exactly that - that Americans and Arabs pretty much across the board gave very similar answers in terms of what their values and concerns are. Is that something you are trying to emphasize?

Ross: We're trying to establish a much broader and deeper dialogue with the peoples of the Middle East, and in order to do so it helps to find common ground as a starting point. We've identified certain values that we share; I think the remarkable thing about the Zogby study and the many polls done since Sept. 11, both inside the government and in the private sector, is that despite animosity that many people feel over American policy in the Middle East as they see it, there remains a great deal of respect and admiration for many aspects of the US, be it our educational system, our health care system, our technological advances, our atmosphere of opportunity for all, etc. These things are known, respected, and admired in the Arab world, even as there is hostility toward certain of our policies.

Sullivan: You said "peoples" of the Middle East, which is key - you're not addressing one unified audience but a broad range of nationalities, religions, perspectives, outlooks, opinions about America. How do you go about reaching so many audiences?

Ross: It's not easy, especially in this age of media saturation. Many years ago it was possible to conceive of different messages for different audiences, but that becomes increasingly less possible when certain media come to occupy the very central role they have. Certainly in the Middle East today television has replaced radio and the printed press as the main source of news for a great many people. Whether it's satellite or terrestrial based, it's a very powerful medium, and we're slowly learning to work with it. One lesson is that the more efficient a medium is, the less possible it is to differentiate your messages. We're not generating numerous versions of our message; it's basically one message for the broader audience. Of course, within each country we have public affairs staff who seek to put that message into the local context, and there may be some fine-tuning and adjusting to be done. We do recognize that from Morocco to Indonesia there's a huge Muslim population, and from Morocco to the Gulf a huge Arab population, and there are specificities that have to be taken into account in our local programs.

Sullivan: Arab satellite television in particular has had a tremendous impact in the region, and has received much criticism from outside as well as earning lots of praise-some stations in particular. Satellite television has been criticized for inflaming the Arab people, and praised for airing news that the government-run stations wouldn't touch. What's your impression of the impact satellite television has had in the region and how it contributes to a dialogue?

Ross: You have to start with the situation that existed before the advent of satellite television, particularly the semi-independent variety. Arab television stations were a pretty dull lot. Their programming was not very lively. The advent of the satellite stations, those not directly controlled by governments, has obliged all the other stations to make some effort to improve their programming, because now for the first time for those who can afford the equipment, there are alternatives to national television. If my experience in the Middle East is any guide, the equipment required gets cheaper and cheaper by the day, and people are prepared to sacrifice almost anything to have it. If you go up to the hills above most Arab cities you'll find a sea of satellite dishes. The penetration is very great and the competition is there.

That's been a tremendously positive influence of the advent of these satellite stations. Potentially they do have the capacity to broaden discussion and debate to areas that are difficult or taboo on government stations. I don't think that potential has been fully realized. Perhaps some stations are making a good start, and I know there are a couple that are committed to presenting balanced discussion of key issues. But to take the most-widely cited example, Al Jazeera, the US government welcomed it's advent when it first emerged precisely because it brought a new style and new liveliness and new relevance to Arab television, but since Sept. 11 we've been very concerned that as it engages in discussion and debate it does so from a very biased perspective; it has a clear point of view on the events it is presenting for analysis and discussion. And that should not be. Professional journalism requires that when you discuss a subject you have all major points of view represented. With Al Jazeera what you often get is several people, but all at one end of the spectrum. So there's work to be done to induce more balance. But on the whole the advent of Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite stations has been a great step forward in opening up the intellectual and cultural life of the Arab world.

We are looking at how best to interact with this new world of Arab television, whether we ought to go the route of creating our own US government satellite station in Arabic, or whether we should be encouraging private sector initiatives in this regard, or whether our main focus should be on acquiring and providing programming that we could offer to the existing Arab satellite and terrestrial television stations. There are a number of ways we could go and we're looking at the pros and cons of each, but we clearly recognize that television is today's hot medium.

Sullivan: You yourself have been interviewed a number of times on Al Jazeera, as were Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell and other US officials. Their bureau chief here has been quoted as saying he was begging representatives of the US government for interviews after Sept. 11. Do you think they've been receptive to airing American points of view?

Ross: When you're dealing at the level of Sec. Powell or Dr. Rice, those are individuals who will be interviewed one-on-one and with a certain level of respect. But in other instances we're often thrown on panels where the other extreme is very extreme, and it's difficult to conduct a discussion when you're that far along one side of the spectrum. I prefer to appear on the news programs rather than the panel shows and debate shows, which on Al-Jazeera at least are not very productive. On some of the other satellite stations I think they do a better job of that particular format. But this is a field that is evolving daily, and who knows what it will look like in a year.

Sullivan: Going back to the plans for either a US government-run or a private-sector satellite television station in Arabic - what is the status of those initiatives?

Ross: I can only speak for the US government efforts, and even there I can't say much, because the proposal to create a freestanding US government satellite station in Arabic comes from the Board of Broadcasting Governors, which is independent of the Department of State, so questions on that would better be directed to them. They've put a lot of thinking and research into the proposal; of course this being television it has a rather high price tag, so it remains to be seen, in the context of Congressional and administration attitudes toward the federal budget, whether the sums it would require could be allocated. That's one option that has reached the stage of a proposal and must now be further discussed.

On the private sector side there have been initiatives as well, and they're actively involved in seeking sources of funding from American foundations, corporations, individuals with an interest in promoting a better dialogue between the people of the United States and the people of the Arab world. Because there is this possibility of a US government station, they haven't advanced very far into their fundraising, because people are saying, why this if that. That dilemma is going to persist for a while because there won't be an answer on possible US government plans for some time. In the meantime private groups are also looking into exactly what we're interested in doing, which is acquiring programming that could be offered to the existing satellite stations.

Sullivan: One example of that type of programming is the videos on Muslims in America that the US government is attempting to air on stations all across the Muslim world this Ramadan. How is that being met?

Ross: The videos are a series of one- to two-minute spots describing Muslim life in America as seen through the eyes of specific individuals and they form part of a much larger communication effort which involves not only television but also radio, the print media, speakers, and interactive fora of various kinds, from Indonesia and Malaysia through the Arab world. The intention is to run all of this several times during the month of Ramadan as a message to the Muslim world from the American people and from American Muslims. So far the program is running in Indonesia, in Malaysia, and on several of the Arab satellite stations, so it's already widely noticed and commented upon in the Muslim and Arab worlds. There are some countries we'd like to run it in where it's still under review by censorship boards, but I think by the end of Ramadan most Arab viewers will have seen at least some of these spots or read some of the print versions that we've made available to the Arab press.

Sullivan: Whether it's video spots, or a TV channel, be it private or government, or print ads, there are always going to be people who say that this is US propaganda. And there are always going to be people who you can't convince otherwise. But how do you overcome resistance to this type of campaign?

Ross: There are going to be people we can never convince of anything, and they are the people who resort to the acts of terrorism that we've seen. There's nothing we can do to change their view of the United States. Our audience is what I would call the skeptical majority that has strong reservations about aspects of American policy as they see it, but also admires and respects many aspects of American life and achievement. This is a large audience and we've made a deliberate effort to reach out to the younger generation through not only the communication plan we just discussed but also with plans to begin an Arabic-language magazine, to further develop the programming of Radio Sawa, which is again an independent initiative of the Board of Broadcasting Governors but which very happily runs parallel to our efforts here at the State Department.

There are many people who, yes, will say this is American propaganda. But it's a communications effort we're making; it's American Muslims themselves who are speaking, it isn't us, and they will probably be received with a bit more credibility than the official spokesmen. But we do have a premise in our work that we're not involved in telling you lies, we're involved in conveying truth and conveying policy as accurately as possible. There's a tremendous job of clarification to be done on policy, because since we are a principal actor in the Middle East whose actions affect many, many parties, each party tries to interpret our policy to its favor. So you get skewed interpretations of our policies floating around as if they were our policies. The first task is to make sure that however people are reacting, whether it's in favor or opposed, they're reacting to an understanding of the real policy and not somebody else's description of that policy. But even after you've clarified and you've made sure the policy is understood for what it is, there will always be people who disagree, because policy is derived from the politics and the national interest of any given country, and the US is no different in that regard. Some differences may be so profound as to be virtually unbridgeable, but we'd like to hope that by doing an effective job at explaining our policies and reminding people that we share a great deal with them, that gradually the atmosphere are attitudes toward the US will improve. It's a long-term effort.

Sullivan: Is it a concern to you that at the precise time when there is this need to "win hearts and minds" or to get a dialogue going, exchange programs might be on the decline, fewer people from the Middle East might be willing to come to the US or they might encounter logistical and visa problems, and fewer Americans might be willing to travel to the Middle East right now? That kind of direct experience and contact can be extremely valuable - is this a concern?

Ross: I would preface my answer by pointing out that there's a difference between "winning hearts and minds" and engaging in dialogue. We're trying to engage in dialogue, not set our objective as winning hearts and minds, because we recognize that there are some profound differences between us and certain elements in the Arab world. But yes, it's a concern. Given the painful events of Sept. 11 this country has embarked on a number of initiatives that are not always internally coherent. We're engaged in a tremendous effort to improve our dialogue and improve our outreach to the Muslim and Arab worlds while at the same time greatly modifying the procedures for obtaining visas to visit this country or to study or work here. It is a real problem, and one that the Department of State is quite aware of. Discussions of how to fit all these differing policies together continue. Clearly we want to open up as much as we can to the Arab and Muslim worlds and we also have to provide for as much security as possible domestically for the American people and the requirements of these two may sometimes take us in different directions.

The funds for exchange programs are increasing, so there will be no break from our side. There may be people who choose not to come but we hope to be able to work out procedures to make it easier for them to come when they are traveling by US government invitation. In the end these situations may require us to think in very new ways and create programs that take into account that it's now more difficult to get to the US, perhaps doing programs in third countries or doing more through video conferencing. There's a certain amount that can be done to reduce the impact. But it remains true that exchanges and face-to-face contact are the most effective means of overcoming misunderstandings and hostilities, whether it's foreign guests coming to the United States or Americans going overseas. I've make two trips to the Middle East since Sept. 11, and I was quite pleased to see that whatever people's attitudes about American policy were, they are as hospitable as ever to the American people.

Sullivan: This question is not directly related to your efforts but, I think, very relevant to the bigger picture. Do you think US public opinion also needs to be reshaped? There are quite a few misperceptions about the Arab world here in this country that also need to be cleared up if we want to get a dialogue going.

Ross: That's absolutely true and I've been very blunt in telling any Arab friend who will listen that the Arab governments and the Arab publics need to do a much better job of presenting their case in this country. This is one of the freest media environments in the world. With persistence you can make your voice heard in this country and collectively the Arab governments and Arab peoples have not done very well at this. If they want to see a better image of themselves in this country they have to do the work. I've often engaged in long discussions over how this can be done. Ideas abound but the practical work has yet to be done. In the whole region of hundreds of millions of people, there are certainly a few dozen who could join in mounting an effective public affairs campaign in this country. Just as our efforts to present our message in the Arab world have their requirements and their obstacles, so too here. Here the first lesson is that you need to speak very good English and look presentable. That's the reality of our media environment today. You have someone who claims to be a spokesman for a country, or a given set of interests, and the only message they can deliver is the same message they would deliver to a party rally in their own country-that that won't sell at all in the United States. So there's a great deal of work to be done on that front. There are misperceptions and misunderstandings on both sides of this very important relationship. TBS

Sarah J. Sullivan is Web/Publications Manager for the Arab American Institute and former managing editor of TBS.


Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo