I've argued that the greatest victims of the Pentagon's amateurish propaganda payola scheme have been those voices in the Arab media that actually want to advance pro-American arguments, who now face an even greater level of suspicion and skepticism. Turns out someone else agrees with me, and when you hear who it is you'll realize that this may be one of the only times you ever hear that phrase: Ken Tomlinson, of Broadcasting Board of Governors and Corporation for Public Broadcasting fame (thanks, AH).
According to Broadcasting and Cable (subscription only), Tomlinson was deeply concerned:
Telling B&C he agreed with the criticism that such payments undercut U.S. efforts to help Iraq build a free press, he also said that, "as a news professional, can you imagine anything lower than a newsperson who takes bribes? Talk about building a free and honest press."
Tomlinson said that debates "involving people who also don't agree with us on freedom and rights are vital to what we are doing at Alhurra....
When Alhurra was launched, Tomlinson said, "Our competitive edge in the Middle East is our very dedication to truth, and free and open debate. And we will stand out like a beacon of light in a media market dominated by sensationalism and distortion."
Leaving aside all disagreements about al-Hurra itself, or Tomlinson's sincerity or accuracy in his claims about it, I'm glad to see Tomlinson taking this position.
I think that the payola only affects al-Hurra indirectly. Since al-Hurra is formally and openly an American government broadcasting outlet, it obviously isn't directly tarred by a scandal involving secret payments and placing of ghost-written stories in the Iraqi and Arab media. If al-Hurra directly broadcast scripts written in the Pentagon, so what? Firewall or no firewall, it's pretty much what viewers expect.
But in the bigger picture it does affect al-Hurra, and all American public diplomacy, because it goes so directly to the question of the sincerity of American commitment to free and open media, and American credibility in its advocacy of democracy. The problem is not that the United States is trying to persuade foreign audiences of American views - if that were illegitimate, then you'd have to kiss the entire public diplomacy enterprise goodbye. It's the subterfuge, which is like a cancer at the heart of the public diplomacy endeavor... once it is inevitably exposed, it metastasizes and consumes even the healthy cells.
I've seen a number of articles over the last few days coming forth to defend the program, comparing it to early Cold War programs or justifying it as a necessary part of a total war against al-Qaeda. Some of those pieces are thoughtful and well-argued. But I think they are wrong. Compared to the early Cold War, today it is almost impossible to keep something like this a secret. The time-frame for exposure is incredibly compressed, and once exposed the information circulates back to the targetted region virtually immediately. In other words, it isn't just a normative claim for the superiority of transparency and media freedom - it's based on the new strategic reality created by today's information environment. Any policy which does not take into account the inevitability of early public exposure is by definition a flawed policy. That applies to extraordinary renditions, torture, domestic spying, and Iraqi payola schemes alike. This should be a key concept for all policy making today, and a key way in which public diplomacy should be integrated into the policy process.
I think that building a free, open, critical media in the Middle East really is one of the most vital steps towards positive change in the region: meaningful democracy is inconceivable without it, as is virtually every other aspect of economic, cultural or political reform. Undermining that to score a few cheap points in a propaganda war is incredibly short-sighted, self-defeating behavior.