US International Broadcasting Strategies in the Arab World: An analysis of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' strategy from a public communication standpoint
By Wendy Feliz Sefsaf


Wendy Feliz Sefsaf

The US government has devised a plan to repair its image in the Arab World. This plan includes generously-funded, government-sponsored international broadcasting, known in the past as Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. Today, under the guidance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), two new programs have been developed for the target Arab audience: Radio Sawa and the Alhurra satellite television network. From a public communications standpoint, US international broadcasting will have a difficult time achieving its goal of reaching mass audiences in the Arab and Muslim world in order to further US public diplomacy because: (1) the research is lacking, (2) the audience is highly resistant to the messages, and (3) the strategies and messages lack cultural appropriateness.

This article summarizes a research project, primarily qualitative, conducted in the spring of 2004. To our knowledge, it was the first of what will surely be countless reviews and analyses of the US International Broadcasting strategies in the Arab world. The study describes the strategy and critically analyzes the Broadcasting Board of Governors efforts.

America's image abroad and most dramatically in the Arab and Muslim world is declining. In 2002, Zogby International released the Ten Nation Impressions of America Poll and concluded that US policy towards Muslim nations was given low marks by those polled in Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press (2003) showed that the US is facing a public relations crisis in the Muslim world and that their image has been tarnished in many nations including among NATO allies, in Eastern Europe, and in Muslim societies.

As a result, the US government has come up with a plan to increase public diplomacy programs in the region in order to repair its image. With these intentions, the US has increased its government-sponsored international broadcasting efforts, known in the past as Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. Today, under the guidance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), two new programs have been developed for the target Arab audience: Radio Sawa and the Alhurra satellite television network.

The US General Accounting Office reports that the "approximately $1 billion nonmilitary budget for US public diplomacy is split almost evenly between the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the activities of US government-sponsored broadcasting overseas" (GAO 2003, p. 34).

International broadcasting is not a new public diplomacy technique for the US government, but it is one that has had many incarnations since it began in the 1940's. The most recent model is an audience-research-driven approach targeting mass audiences. This is in contrast to the traditional focus during the Cold-War on elites and decision makers.

Traditional US public diplomacy focused on foreign elites-current and future overseas opinion leaders, agenda-setters, and decision makers. However, the dramatic growth in global mass communications and other trends have forced a rethinking of this approach, and the State Department has begun to consider techniques for communicating with broader foreign audiences (GAO 2003, p. 4).

The Broadcasting Board of Governors

In 1994, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) was formed by the International Broadcasting Act, and created a nine-member, bi-partisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The IBB was originally part of the US Information Agency (USIA). When USIA was disbanded in October 1999, the IBB and BBG were established as independent federal government entities

The current BBG differs in many ways from the individuals who have run international broadcasting entities in the past like Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Voice of America (VOA). The BBG is currently comprised of individuals from the commercial broadcasting world, including Norman Pattiz, the founder and chairman of Westwood One, America's largest radio network. Westwood One owns, manages, or distributes the NBC Radio Network, CBS Radio Network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, CNN Radio, Fox Radio Network, Metro Networks, Metro Traffic, and Shadow Traffic. Another member is Steven J. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications, LLC, a new company formed to purchase cable companies in the United States. The Secretary of State also holds a permanent seat on the board.

The BBG's stated vision is "to create a flexible, multimedia, research-driven US international broadcasting system" (BBG Strategic Plan, p.4). In 2002, the BBG created a new strategic plan for the agency. The plan, entitled "Marrying the Mission to the Market," outlines their future plans in great detail along with a discussion of current limitations.

This new strategic plan calls for substantive research, including defining, segmenting, and understanding target audiences. The BBG has contracted much of this audience research out to InterMedia, an organization which conducts audience research in developing countries. InterMedia's clients include many other international broadcasting groups including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Deutche Welle, the national German broadcasting group.

Some of the market challenges cited in the report include: media competitiveness, lack of branding, poor broadcasting strategies, poor development of target audiences, dated broadcasting formats, and poor marketing and promotion. Therefore, they suggest that the various ways in which they will attempt to address these challenges include "strengthening our multi-media profile, funding and conducting research, carrying out marketing and promotion, (and) securing talented language-qualified journalists, broadcasters and technicians" (BBG Strategic Plan, pg. 25).

It is clear that the BBG is moving towards reforming the "Cold War" style of international broadcasting and attempting to create a hip and modern feel to their programming in an effort to reach and build a larger and younger audience. One example of this strategy at work is the two-year-old venture known as Radio Sawa. Radio Sawa is a 24-hour radio channel broadcast into Arab countries with western-friendly governments, including Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait. Based on audience research, the BBG developed a format that includes trendy western and Arab pop music. They include 5-10 minute news reports between music to inform the audience of US foreign policy and world politics. The BBG recently cited the success of the network by announcing the results of an ACNielsen survey of Radio Sawa's audience in several Arab countries. The survey found that "11 percent of Egyptians aged 15 and older listened to Sawa in the previous week, as well as 40 percent of Kuwaitis." (BBG Annual Report 2002)

In February 2004, the BBG launched a satellite television network called Alhurra. Alhurra has been called America's answer to the popular Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel, Al Jazeera. With barely a few months under its belt, it is hard to say whether or not it will be successful. Tomlinson, a member of the BBG, discussed his ideas about the need for US-sponsored satellite television in his testimony before Congress in February 2003. He stated that television is quickly becoming the preferred medium for news in the "Arab World." He believes that by launching this network the US will "make a major contribution toward helping the people of the region move away from extremism and violence and toward democracy and freedom." (Senate Hearing Testimony pg. 7)

Critical Perspectives on Current International Broadcasting Strategies

Two contrasting perspectives on the role and future of US sponsored international broadcasting come from Ambassador Edward Djerejian and Dr. Andrew Elliott-experienced individuals in public diplomacy and international broadcasting, respectively. They are also vocal critics of the BBG's plans.

Ambassador Edward Djerejian is the director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a lifetime career Foreign Service officer. He served as US Ambassador to both Israel and Syria. He also leads the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World. He prepared a report to the Committee on Appropriations in the US House of Representatives in October 2003. This report was titled Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World. In the report he describes the potential challenges of broadcasting into an Arab world that is highly cynical and suspicious of US motives. Because of this challenge, he also discusses the need for research.

To exemplify his point on the weakness of international broadcasting in achieving public diplomatic goals, Djerejian discusses a recent General Accounting Office survey of State Department public affairs officers. In this survey the officers were asked their opinions on the effectiveness of government-sponsored international broadcasting in achieving US public diplomacy objectives in their host countries. The survey found that the majority believe it is either ineffective or neutral: "neither effective nor ineffective." (GAO, "US public diplomacy," pg. 61).

Djerejian (2003) believes the BBG should be required to demonstrate its worth and effectiveness before gaining additional government support. He adds that Radio Sawa needs to establish more tangible public diplomacy objectives, in addition to its goal of building a large audience. Furthermore, their research should prove that Radio Sawa can change negative attitudes into positive attitudes and "move the needle" toward what the State Department, in its mission statement on public diplomacy and public affairs, calls "influence" (p. 30).

Another critic of the BBG believes there should be a separation between international broadcasting and the State Department. This vocal advocate is Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, a 20-year veteran audience researcher at Voice of America. In a personal interview he discussed the many challenges international broadcasting is faced with in the 21st century. He explained his view that the Arab world is more difficult to influence now because of its access to satellite television and the internet. He believes the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks are popular because they appeal to mass sentiment. He went on to add that the US could best counteract Al Jazeera with a stodgy, balanced news service, similar to PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He also believes that the US should be targeting the elites in these countries and not mass audiences, as the new board is hoping to do. Finally he shared his hope that the BBC or CNN would begin broadcasting into the Arab and Muslim world, as he believes their credibility and autonomy would allow for quicker success than the BBG could hope to achieve (K. Elliott, personal communication, April 14, 2004).

Dr. Elliott penned a letter to Ambassador Djerejian in response to his report.
He discussed the BBG's strategy of targeting "elites" as opposed to mass audiences. He believes that mass audiences will be difficult to reach because they will not be attracted to the type of information that will be provided, nor will they go to the trouble of finding the broadcasts. He notes that there is a reason why international broadcasting audiences are elite, which is that "mass audiences are less likely to own a shortwave radio, tune to a distant medium wave signal, visit a website, or endure the information laden, entertainment-sparse content of traditional international broadcasting (Djerejian letter pg. 8).

Dr. Elliot also makes an important point with respect to Alhurra's credibility. He asserts his belief that international broadcasters with strong ties to governments will not gain mass appeal because of their inability to be objective. He questions whether Alhurra will be able to interview and cover the stories of interest to their Arab audience. He cites a particular event from September 2001 when "the State Department applied pressure on VOA not to broadcast excerpts of an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar." He also describes a Congressional conference committee that reported, "The conferees expect that the VOA will not air interviews with any official from nations that sponsor terrorism or any representative or member of terrorist organizations, or otherwise afford such individual opportunities to air inaccurate, propagandistic, or inflammatory messages. (Djerejian letter pg. 12) With these limitations Alhurra will quickly establish itself as a propaganda station. Elliott believes Alhurra's challenge is "to transmit to a skeptical target audience while taking its income from a possible meddlesome US government."

Elliott believes the BBC has greater success than the US in international broadcasting because of two important distinctions-consolidation and autonomy. Elliott is not the first to criticize the US international broadcasting system as a "jerry built monstrosity." However, he illustrates the problem by discussing the tendency of its various components to compete among themselves. For example, Elliot points out that Radio Sawa, Radio Free Iraq, and the remnant of the VOA Arabic Service all maintain Arabic-language websites and that none of these services have links to the others. The BBG has responded by saying it will address the overlap that takes place in US international broadcasting.

Elliott also raises the critical issue of autonomy. He reports that while the VOA is required by law to broadcast editorials, the BBC World Service is prohibited by law from broadcasting editorials. He goes on to argue that this "contrast between the two stations in not lost on listeners" (Djerejian letter pg. 3).

Analysis

Arabs and Americans are like ships passing in the night, sounding their horns, firing their guns, making known their views, but having no impact on the other. The epitome of this is the widening gap between Arabs' perceptions of the US and many Americans' flawed interpretations of those Arab perceptions.
Rami G. Khouri, The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

From a public communications standpoint, US international broadcasting will have a difficult time achieving its goal of reaching mass audiences in the Arab and Muslim world in order to further US public diplomacy because (1) the research is lacking, (2) the audience is highly resistant to the messages, and (3) the strategies and messages lack cultural appropriateness.

Research

The BBG has written research into their planning process; however the type of research they are conducting is unclear, the data is not shared with other key partners, and its reliability is unknown. For example, research that the BBG has done has not been made available to the public or even other State Department employees. Dr. Elliot noted that "the BBG has never held a public meeting and is very proprietary over all of their activities" (K. Elliott, personal interview, April 14, 2004). Additionally a GAO survey of Foreign Service officers in 2003 showed that the BBG was not making research available to individuals working in embassies abroad. When embassy employees were asked, "How often does your office receive the BBG audience research data?" 29.6 percent reported "sporadically or rarely," 53percent reported "never," and 15.7 percent reported "no basis to judge," indicating that 98.3 percent of US embassy staff have insufficient access to BBG research data.

With respect to reliability, the Djerejian report (2003) reviewed a survey of Radio Sawa listeners and pointed out that the Radio Sawa survey consisted of poorly constructed questions that provided little insight into how influential Radio Sawa is. It asked, "How favorably or unfavorably inclined are you personally toward the USA? It found Radio Sawa listeners had more positive views than non-Sawa listeners. This result was to be expected, however, since any listener to a US-sponsored station is likely to be favorably disposed to the United Sates. A better question would be whether Radio Sawa had changed a listener's attitude toward America. Better still would be the establishment of an attitude baseline to measure whether attitudes have improved and to compare the impact of other media, while controlling for demographic factors" (pg. 31).

It is not clear what the BBG is attempting to understand with their research. Are they trying to deconstruct the target public in order to understand them, or trying to prove that their commercial broadcasting strategies will result in larger audiences and increased market share? Should they not be attempting to asses what the challenges are in communicating with their target audience and how they can be overcome? Why are they not conducting research that attempts to understand what the political, historical, and psychological environment is in the countries that they seek to reach? One would assume that broadcasting to Europe after WWII is dramatically different than broadcasting to the Arab world amidst the current Iraq Crisis. Yet, without reliable research, the differences and cultural nuances will continue to elude the US broadcasters.

Jihad Fakhereddine (2002), a Middle East media analyst, notes the problem with US and Arab communication today: "Neither the US nor the Arabs have taken any serious systematic approaches to learn why there is this gap of misunderstanding and mutual mistrust." He adds that both sides have been more focused on setting up media channels for disseminating their messages, than on the actual 'content of the exchanged messages'" (p. 2).

If the BBG wants their public communications efforts to succeed, they can look to Mendehlson (1973) an advocate of in-depth research, and Hyman & Sheatsley (1947), who also discuss research to understand the psychological factors that will affect the success of a campaign. They find that "those responsible for information campaigns cannot rely simply on 'increasing the flow' to spread their information effectively" (1947 p. 421). They posit that there are psychological barriers that must be understood and overcome in order to communicate successfully.

Those who have conducted failed campaigns understand the necessity for extensive and reliable audience research. Most 21st century corporations would easily spend one million dollars on research to safeguard the other millions they spend on their public outreach campaigns. Why would the BBG not invest a significant amount of money into reliable research in order to ensure that the millions they are spending are not being wasted?

The BBG's research should attempt, first and foremost, to understand the media environment in Arab and Muslim countries. For example, how are broadcasters like Al Jazeera impacting their audience and what does this mean for American broadcasters? This information would significantly influence their approach. If this type of research was being conducted they might uncover the fact that Arab publics are very different from American publics in their attitudes towards media because most Arab nations control their domestic media. This control results in low credibility among its audience. Mohammed el-Nawawy, an assistant professor of Communication at Stonehill College stated, "I think the Arab audience are very critical; they have always been critical of their own media because they know they don't get the complete picture from their own government-owned media." He also believes that Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV have done a good job of covering all sides of issues, which has increased their popularity and credibility significantly.

If the BBG had done a better job of understanding the target audience's feelings and attitudes towards existing Arab language broadcasters like Al Jazeera before launching their own network, they might have devised an intelligent strategy of communication and engagement. Instead, many US government officials have discounted these networks and taken a hostile stance towards them. Al Jazeera has become, in its short life, a trusted source of news and information in the Arabic-speaking region. However, instead of playing on their field, the US has decided to build its own. The US launch of Arabic-language satellite broadcasting may "reinforce a competitive stand vis-à-vis the United States and the Arab and Islamic world, rather than a cooperative, relationship-building stance" (Zaharna, congressional testimony, 2003).

The US administration's hostile attitude towards existing Arabic-language media may also be a serious public relations mistake. With over 35 million viewers worldwide, why would the US want to alienate Al Jazeera? Dr. Elliot discusses Al Jazeera's frustration with US officials who have not been available for their interview programs and his frustration with what he believes is a "missed opportunity to convey desired messages to a ready-made audience" (pg. 12). Jihad Fakhreddine also notes "it is intriguing how the Bush administration has failed to realize the opportunities presented by the pan-Arab satellite stations for disseminating the official political perspective of the United States" (The Daily Star).
Kenton Keith, former Ambassador to Qatar also counseled that "You have to be a supporter of Al Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes" ("Reality Television," The Guardian).

Audience Resistance

Even if the BBG is successful in attracting mass audiences through the proliferation of catchy programming, it is unlikely that this consumption alone will get far in altering attitudes and beliefs about America. One must understand the psychological barriers that exist, including the audiences' need for consistency and the high-level of suspicion attached to government-sponsored international broadcasting. Without a clear understanding of the barriers and a strategy to address them, the messages will be lost.

A prime example of this is found in a study conducted by Smith (1973) where he analyzed more than one hundred individuals as they listened to daily broadcasts of international broadcasting originating from the former Soviet Union. He found that the audience will reject messages that are contrary to their existing predispositions. Therefore, with anti-American sentiment running high in these target countries, it is likely that the US's best efforts will be discarded as propaganda. Smith also states that "low credibility" coupled with "audience resistance to perceived manipulation attempts" makes international broadcasting, in general, a difficult sell (p. 116).

Larson's (2003) consistency theory alludes to the difficulties one encounters in attempting to change another's mind. If individuals seek "balance, consistence, congruity or consonance" (1994 p. 182) in their communications, US broadcasting that carries a mandate to disseminate US public diplomacy messages will likely not fit with that need. This will result in audience rejection of the messages.

If at a minimum, the BBG hopes to attract listeners and change attitudes by highlighting the positive things about American life like popular culture and technological and medical advances, it will probably not be enough to "move the needle" and change anti-American sentiment in the region. Pew public polls reveal that "very large majorities of the publics in most of the world admire US technology. This is the case even among people with a low regard for the US generally" (Pew Center, 2003). Although anecdotal evidence demonstrates that some people in the Arab world are watching and listening-either out of curiosity, or because the mediums provide music and films that they cannot get elsewhere-there is no evidence of what this will accomplish. Anecdotal evidence also shows that the target audiences have been angered by Alhurra's poor coverage of recent important issues related to Iraq and Palestine, thus further downgrading its reputation.

If the US continues to ignore the values, perceptions, and underlying psychological factors affecting this target public, it will continue to implement poor broadcasting strategies that may not only be missing the mark, but creating unintended, negative consequences.

Rami G. Khouri, executive editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon explains US misperception of the "Arab" world and the dangers associated with it in an op-ed:

The American president's intellectual gangsterism ("they hate our freedom") is simplistic, wrong and dangerous…. By arguing that our region is troubled and violent because Arabs and Muslims hate American values, and then attempting to correct this by launching television, radio and magazine efforts in Arabic, the US government perpetuates a fatal combination of political blindness and cultural misperception that is only going to exacerbate the gap between Americans and Arabs, rather than close it (p.1).

Bush's sentiments are also echoed by the BBG's Tomlinson who said he believed launching Alhurra would "make a major contribution toward helping the people of the region move away from extremism and violence and toward democracy and freedom" (Senate hearing testimony 2003). These dogmatic, ideological statements reflect a cultural imperialism that is poorly received in the Arab World.

Dr. Elliott penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times explaining what international broadcasters should be doing if they want to attract mass audiences. He believes that foreign broadcasters attract audiences when they provide a trustworthy alternative to their state-run domestic media. He believes that touting America's greatness is not what will attract large audiences, and he "is not aware of any person huddled by their radios to hear about the achievements and values of the United States or any other country" (p. 1).

Cultural Appropriateness

Perhaps the US's whole approach to communicating with this new target audience has to be reexamined. As Zaharna suggests, "the model of one-way communication and image building isn't working." It also seems that typical American communication styles do not resonate in this part of the world. For example the constant positioning of the US, as an altruistic country, kindly trying to instill democratic values and principles of freedom abroad, is missing the mark. This positioning must have inspired the naming of the network Alhurra (The Free One). The name Alhurra is reportedly being perceived as condescending and hypocritical by the target audience. These errors could have been avoided by employing simple message testing techniques. These are a few among several faux pas that have taken place recently in US public communications in the Arab world.

Cultural Misfires

Even when the US does not intend to offend, it may be doing more damage than good. Cross-cultural training could help to avoid some of the semantic and stylistic errors the current administration is notorious for. Zaharna discusses some of these issues and explains how our "cultural style" may be considered offensive to an Arab audience. She writes, "President Bush's penchant for 'speaking straight' may resonate positively with an American public that values directness. But the Arab public prefers more indirect messages, especially in public. Thus, irrespective of the message's content, differences in delivery style can cause a message to resonate negatively" (Zaharna pg. 4).

Khouri (2004) explains what some unintended consequences of US international broadcasting may be. He believes Alhurra will put American values on display, which will highlight the contradiction between those values-human rights, liberty, and freedom of speech-and our foreign policy. He believes that US broadcasting is insulting to the Arabs and doomed to failure. He states, "Alhurra, like the US government's Radio Sawa and Hi magazine before it, will be an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax. Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?" (p. 1).

There is significant information available in the US about cultural differences and diversity. There are research firms across the globe and professional organizations who conduct training in cultural appropriateness. With these resources readily available to the US government, these mistakes become inexcusable and dangerous.

A New Approach

If the US is unable to design and execute culturally appropriate public communication campaigns to this region, either because of its lack of understanding or because of the target audience's refusal to hear the messages, then another approach should be considered.

Ross (2002) writes about the new challenges and approaches that must be taken in twenty-first-century, post-September 11th public diplomacy. He believes the US is more likely to achieve success if it "structures activities in ways that encourage dialogue." Zaharna underscores his point by stating "nothing in the Arab or Islamic world suggests that this public subscribes to a one-way, transmission model of communication. The culture and society are built around relationships" (Zaharna pg. 6). Most parties agree that in order for the US to successfully influence public opinion in this part of the world, it must change the paradigm of the past and "establish a two-way approach that builds credible dialogue" and relationships.

Zaharna believes there are two ways of approaching US public diplomacy in the Arab World-"relationship-building strategies or messages and image-building strategies." Zaharna argues that current American public diplomacy "appears very much focused on its message and its image." She believes that a more effective approach would entail "relationship-building strategies [that] focus on developing mutually beneficial and reciprocal connections between people and nations" (Zaharna pg. 5).

Relationship building is not a new concept for the US State Department. Some great examples of relationship-building programs in the past have included student, professional, and cultural exchanges. The Fulbright Fellowship program has been a tried and true component of our foreign outreach. They might also consider an increase in educational, social, and grass-roots community programs on the ground in foreign countries. Other helpful steps would include careful restraint and cultural sensitivity towards the Arabs and Muslims who live in the United States with ties to family abroad. There is no shortage of ideas if there is, similarly, no shortage of support for them.

Conclusion

America's image abroad and most specifically in the Arab and Muslim world is at an all-time low. The US administration has said, time and again, they must win the "hearts and minds" of the Arab public. However, all they have created in terms of a solution to this public relations crisis is a poorly funded and thought-out plan of public diplomacy, which includes a healthy dose of government-sponsored international broadcasting.

This case study has sought to apply the dominant theories in public communication to analyzing the Broadcasting Board of Governor's plan and launch of international broadcasting into the Arab world with Radio Sawa and Alhurra television. This study finds the BBG's public communication efforts fall short in three important areas: research, effective message development, and cultural appropriateness.

The BBG's research is lacking, not widely shared, and unreliable. Their messages are not only failing to influence their audience, but are actually proving offensive to them. They also display a lack of cultural awareness and appropriateness which is widening, rather than bridging, the gap between Arabs and Americans.

Because there is no lack of experts, studies, or information that could help the BBG design an effective public communications plan in the Arab world, questions hover. Why are they not doing a better job? As Henry Hyde of the House International Relations Committee said, "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?" (Senate Hearing Testimony).

Areas for further research

As senator Richard Lugar has argued, "We must resist the temptation to believe that public relations wizardry alone can fix the American image overseas." Furthermore, public diplomacy is pointless while the US administration continues to implement public policy that is perceived negatively by their target audience. Djerejian argues along similar lines that "your public diplomacy can only be as good as your values and policies." In order to address these issues, further research must be conducted to understand the relationship between a country's or organization's reputation and its policies. In a case like this, where US policies are vastly despised and resented among the target audience is there really a role for public diplomacy?

Other important questions must be posed, for example: should US international broadcasting serve as a public diplomacy tool under the US State Department? Or, should it be allowed to form into an independent media organization similar to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)? Most people would agree that autonomy is important for the overall credibility of any media organization. Throughout the past few years in America and Europe, there has been a great amount of discussion and debate regarding issues of independence and consolidation of media. This discussion has been prompted by changing media ownership regulations in the US and Prime Minister Berlusconi's loosening of media ownership laws in Italy. Government or corporate controlled media will always live under a cloud of suspicion. Therefore, how well can it serve the goals of public diplomacy anywhere?

Some have also suggested that social capital and civil society would be enhanced if we spent the millions of dollars earmarked for Alhurra and Radio Sawa to instead develop a free press in the countries themselves. Others have suggested that broadcasting C-Span or PBS programming would be a better strategy than distributing carefully formulated and scripted news programming with a public diplomacy mandate. These are all important points that warrant further research.

Another important area for consideration and investigation is the difficulties in reaching important regions like Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Radio jamming of frequencies, refusal of cable distributors to carry US programming, and blocks on websites, all prevent the US public diplomacy efforts from reaching the residents of these countries. Since there will always be limits on access to these publics, is this the best communications strategy? The US has no way of guaranteeing that publications will print their ads or position papers, and no assurances that satellite networks will carry their networks or make radio frequencies available to them. They can develop communication products, but they will never be guaranteed the media to deliver them.

This leads the US, once again, back to the question of whether or not their current efforts will succeed. Perhaps, as Ross and Zaharna suggest, a new approach is needed. As Senator Lugar argues, "Successful public diplomacy is not about manipulating people into liking us against their interests. Rather, it is about clearly and honestly explaining the views of the United states, underscoring the issues of commonality, and expanding opportunities for interaction between Americans and foreign peoples" or, put more simply, public diplomacy is, or should be, about "relationship building" (pg. 3).

Wendy Feliz Sefsaf works at the National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Washington D.C., WAMU 88.5 FM. She recently received her master's degree in Public Communication from the School of Communication at American University. She may be contacted at wfelizali@aol.com.

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