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US Government Aims to Improve Overseas Image - 2002-07-30


Efforts are underway to revamp the way the U.S. government communicates to citizens of other countries. These efforts have been prompted by the view that the United States is misunderstood, or even disliked, in many parts of the world.

Faced with a widespread and growing mistrust of the United States and its policies, particularly in the Islamic world, policymakers are under increasing pressure to do a better job of communicating U.S. government policies abroad.

The term in bureaucratic language is "public diplomacy", which in plain English is simply "public relations." But whatever it is called, independent experts say the U.S. government has done a poor job of it.

On Monday, the non-governmental Council on Foreign Relations released the report of an independent task force that sharply criticized U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Task force chairman Peter Peterson said that even in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, public diplomacy efforts received scant attention.

"The promise of America's public diplomacy has in our view not been realized due to the lack of will, the absence of an overall strategy, a deficit of trained officials, cultural constraints, structural shortcomings, and a scarcity of resources," he said.

The task force calls for, among other things, a centralization of public diplomacy efforts and increased funding from Congress to support them.

In apparent response to the flurry of criticism, President Bush is strengthening a White House entity known as the Office of Global Communications. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that the office will sharpen U.S. efforts to get the government's message out overseas.

"The president does believe better coordination of international communications will help America explain what we do and why we do it around the world."

The Voice of America is among the broadcasting entities that policymakers consider to be part of the public diplomacy effort. A 1976 law guarantees the objectivity and balance of VOA newscasts, and VOA has fought through several administrations, both Republican and Democratic, to maintain the journalistic integrity of its newscasts.

Task force member Henry Grunwald, the former editor of Time Magazine, dismissed concerns that the new, post-September 11 enthusiasm for public diplomacy efforts will lead to an erosion of VOA's journalistic credibility.

"Well, I don't think there has to be a real conflict," he said. "I think it's perfectly legitimate for the government to want to get its message out. I think that, on the other hand, the Voice of America and other media should put that message in context, explain it, but also explain the criticism we get from abroad and elsewhere over those policies. I think you need both, I think you need both the straight story, or straight, objective reporting, as well as the government message, as long as it's put in context."

Last week, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde pushed a bill through the House of Representatives overhauling U.S. public diplomacy efforts, including a revamping of international broadcasting efforts. It still faces debate in the Senate.

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