Hillary Clinton & Al Jazeera: Context

Why does American media react to events just as reductively as the general public? I don’t understand this.  Shouldn’t it be our job to provide context and nuance in the face of knee-jerk reaction?

Last week, however, pundits from Daily Kos to Taylor Marsh to Jay Rosen reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Al Jazeera and criticized American news outlets like CNN.

Daily Kos:  “Hillary Clinton Pimps Al Jazeera over American News.”

Taylor Marsh:  “Sect. Hillary Clinton:  Al Jazeera ‘Real News.’”

Jay Rosen, on Twitter:  “In effect, Hillary Clinton is saying CNN sucks, stands for nothing and substitutes pundits for news. http://jr.ly/7c5u Which hurts the USA.” 3 Mar

But this was not what Clinton was doing, at all.  In her role as Secretary of State, she was advocating for the State Department budget before its arbiters at the U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities committee in the Senate.

It is quite likely that the State Department budget will be cut—certainly the Defense trims suggest the writing on the wall.  Therefore, Secretary Clinton was arguing as persuasively as she could for not defunding any of the government-sponsored media that she sees as a crucial part of the new Obama/Gates/Clinton foreign policy.

The State Department is trying to expand its propaganda reach back to the level of influence the Voice of America had during the Cold War.  This is why the Clinton State Department has rolled out Arabic and Farsi twitter feeds.  This is why we have ramped up Radio Free Asia. This is why Clinton (and recently-deceased Richard Holbrooke) funded Pakistani and Afghani radio stations to get out an American message in cultures otherwise hostile to the U.S.  This is why our tax dollars support the Arabic network Alhurra.

Alhurra’s mission is to provide objective, accurate, and relevant news and information to the people of the Middle East about the region, the world, and the United States.  Alhurra supports democratic values by expanding the spectrum of ideas, opinions, and perspectives available in the region’s media.”

In other words, Alhurra and its counterpart Radio Sawa exist to make sure that the American point of view gets some traction in the Arabic-speaking world.

This is propaganda, and Hillary Clinton certainly does not expect private enterprise media like CNN to provide such.  “Our private media cannot fill that gap,” she told the Senators wielding power over her budget.

“We are in an information war and we are losing that war,” she warned.  Our efforts are falling short not because our commercial media is infatuated with celebrity and soundbites but because our State Department cannot match the budgets of government-sponsored media like Al Jazeera and Russia Today.

As I wrote in my previous piece, Al Jazeera has a mission statement.  AJ propagandizes with the formidable financial backing of the Emir of Qatar.  Al Jazeera is dedicated to reshaping the world in a non-western image—welcome overall, I think—but a mission not necessarily aligned with American interests, nevertheless.

Al Jazeera, just like CNN, uses pundits to fill out show segments—and a lot more religious leaders among those talking heads, as well.  Overall, however, comparing the two is apples and oranges.  AJ doesn’t have to worry about money; the network has no serious news competition in the Arabic-speaking news world. CNN must turn a profit, and its producers must do well in their time slots against a plethora of competitors.

This is not to say that CNN is a model of good journalism, as I believe my previous piece illustrates well.  But I am saying that Secretary Clinton was not criticizing CNN vis-à-vis Al Jazeera.  She was comparing her puny resources to those of Al Jazeera.

American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa is undergoing transformation of an import not felt since the Suez Crisis half a century ago.  Clinton/Gates/Obama are acting upon the principles of smart power that they have long been touting.  They are determined to use more rule of law, carefully-targeted aid and the persuasion of information–fewer guns and missiles.  This is what is sometimes called soft power—but “soft” is a misnomer.  Secretary Clinton is nothing if not hard in her determination that the United States match Russia and the Arab world in the information war.

March 9, 2011

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