By Lawrence Pintak and William Rugh
CAIRO (Feb. 17, 2009): Almost 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy turned to America’s most respected journalist to tell the nation’s story to the world.
Edward R. Murrow was the father of television journalism. His valiant reporting from wartime London during the Blitz galvanized the American public and won the gratitude of European leaders. His broadcasts about Sen. Joseph McCarthy brought to an end a dark period in American politics.
Who better to serve as head of the US Information Service, in charge of communicating the values of American democracy to the world?
As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed, Under Ed Murrow, the Voice of America became the voice, not of American self-righteousness, but of American democracy.
What a contrast to his recent successors. It is true, they have been heavily burdened by President Bush’s unpopular policies, and public diplomacy cannot completely reverse strong criticism of policy. But with the right approach – and the right credentials – they could have done more.
It’s time to revisit the Murrow option for US public diplomacy.
President Obama scored huge points in the Middle East by selecting Al Arabiya, a leading Arab satellite news channel, for one of his first major interviews. That symbolism and the sense of empathy engendered by his discussion of his Muslim roots resonated around the world.
Obama can follow that up by making a bold choice for public diplomacy chief.
Public diplomacy is much more complicated than selling Uncle Ben’s Rice to American consumers. It requires a sophisticated knowledge of foreign audiences and an ability to use various tools to reach them in a highly competitive international media environment. We need to have someone heading our public diplomacy effort who can explain not only our policies but also our society and culture to others around the world with honesty and integrity. This president understands that we must listen as well as talk and engage others in a candid dialogue that is based on respect for others’ opinions, so his public diplomacy chief should follow Murrow’s advice that to be persuasive we must listen and always tell the truth.
Where can we find such a person? Various names come to mind: Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, or Bill Moyers who, like Murrow, is a stellar journalist whose career includes service in the halls of policy. From the print world, Washington Post columnist and former International Herald Tribune editor David Ignatius leaps out. These journalists and a handful of others whom Americans have trusted to explain the world to them would bring a new dimension to America’s outreach to the world.
The response to the naming of the next public diplomacy chief should not be, “Who? even among the cognoscenti. The appointment of a journalist renowned in the US and respected in the halls of power abroad will require no explanation. The acclaim in America will echo in the international media.
Reporting the news and telling America’s story to the world are – emphatically – not the same thing. Yet journalist-as-public-diplomacy-czar is not an oxymoronic concept. The job description is similar for both: Effective communication skills; an instinctual understanding that the people of the world view America through many prisms; and, most of all, credibility.
At the end of the day, the public diplomacy czar is an advocate, but one who always is truthful. The experience of the Voice of America over the past six decades shows that policy advocacy and journalistic integrity are compatible. A journalist working for the government does not have to check his/her values at the door. Reporting on American policy as well as on dissent from the official line is good public diplomacy because it is credible.
Foreigners will not always like our policies because they have different worldviews, but if we listen to them and try to explain our approach in an open discussion, rather than preaching, we will gain more support.
A half-century ago, Murrow argued that the US government should use “words not weapons to make US policy “intelligible and wherever possible palatable.
The formula – and the role model – are just as relevant today.