Even before the bombs fell on Baghdad, the U.S. government was blasting away on the media front in its war on Iraq. From slick daily press briefings to deploying Air Force “Commando Solo” aircraft—old C-130s packed with television and radio broadcasting equipment—Washington seemed clear on one fact: propaganda is as important as finding weapons of mass destruction.
Now that the U.S. is more or less in charge of Iraq and the Mideast media war is on full blast, we talked with Cal State Fullerton assistant professor Nancy Snow about what the U.S. should and shouldn't do concerning worldwide public opinion. The author of two books on propaganda, Snow worked for the United States Information Agency in the early 1990s.
OC Weekly:First of all, what is propaganda?Nancy Snow: Propaganda is non-neutral advocacy that generally favors the sender. There has to be an agency that sponsors it. After World War II, Congress banned all attempts by the government to propagandize the American people. Interestingly, this administration has done a good job propagandizing its own people but not at all overseas.
There is a notion here that we don't do propaganda, if you define propaganda as the Big Lie told often. We get all wound up over that, but the most effective propaganda deals with half-truths and misinformation. The Big Lie is not effective. Look at the Iraqi information minister—it's very easy to become a joke.
But we deceive ourselves when we protest that we don't do propaganda. Much of the world sees us as the No. 1 propaganda nation. It's one thing to say we only deal with the truth—but the U.S. lacks credibility. That means there's a long road ahead.
Why is that?
As Americans, it's hard for us to see the roots of anti-Americanism. We don't hear a lot about imperial power, but in a lot of the world the U.S. is seen as a major imperial power—militarily, economically and culturally. We keep saying we need to get our message out, but often the world is saying, “We get your message; we hear it all the time.”
We're perceived as hypocrites—we're friends with one country, then we're at war with that country. That shows we're not so purist after all.
The U.S. approach is to say our intentions are good, so even if we mess up, we're still better than the dictators.
So the problem is the disconnect between U.S. policies and our rhetoric.
When I worked for the government, we never addressed U.S. policies. We just promoted them. Often it was a matter of us answering a question no one asked. We would show how well Muslims live in the U.S., but people around the world already know that. They're more interested in why the U.S. is supporting these regimes around the world.
But no one in government is saying anything about shifting our policies. Take Bush's announcement just before the war began on a plan to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It was seen as just a PR effort, and we never heard about it afterward.
What should we do?
I think there's a notion in Washington that technology is a silver bullet—that there is some technology out there, be it Commando Solo or putting Dan Rather on the Iraqi evening news—that will shift the people's allegiance. But don't we want the Iraqis to establish their own media?
We have to understand the audience. I don't think we understand the audience around the world. We just can't replace one horrific information ministry with another. Right now, the government does two press briefings: one for domestic press and one for foreign press. The government needs to brief all the press at the same time.
We need to get closer to outlets like [the Arabic-language news network] Al-Jazeera. After Sept. 11, many said that Al-Jazeera was nothing more than propaganda. But maybe the world doesn't want a free society. Maybe they prefer a rule by the church, for example. We're seeing a trend to more openness, but we need to acknowledge those viewpoints.
I'm not crazy about the term “Arab Street” because there's no “American Street.” It implies a kind of mob mentality—people in the streets—that we have to appeal to. We have to be more concerned about their culture and traditions. They have a lot to teach us.
Is all propaganda bad?
Not necessarily. Not if we acknowledge that we do put out propaganda. Right now, we pretend we don't—we say we just tell the truth. We need to have our voice in the world but also to understand that ours is not the only voice. Right now, the world sees us as the big megaphone.
Yes, there is a lot of extremism out there, and we need to challenge that. But there should be a lot more voices on the airwaves than just Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. That would show more of the open society we supposedly represent.
International exchange programs are also very good. They have an education focus, but they promote international understanding. But Washington is very insulated. I lived there for nine years. They don't allow their imaginations to take them to other places.