Telling America's Story

It's probably not possible to "sell" America abroad. A remarkably complex society is not toothpaste. But it is possible to deliver accurate and comprehensive information about the United States.

That's what the Bush administration plans to do, in hopes of reducing the anti-US contempt that breeds terrorism. While the US is not likely to change its basic foreign policy, such as ensuring Israel's existence, it can broaden the information people abroad receive.

The assumption, and it's a fair one, is that while a minority of people in regions like the Middle East may "hate America," many others - perhaps a silent majority - would be more willing to curb violent acts against Americans if they had better information.

But what will they hear, and will it be taken as credible? Washington is percolating a number of answers to those questions, some more reassuring than others.

Most troubling are reports that the Pentagon is revving up a new "Office of Strategic Influence" to feed information to foreign media without identifying its source (see story, page 2). US officials have denied news accounts that the office would deal in false information as well as facts. That's a critical concern. Suspicions of surreptitiously planted news stories could undermine US communications efforts across the board.

Many of those efforts are promising. For example, a new US-sponsored radio network will be aimed at the Middle East - particularly at the region's huge under-25 population. It will offer a mix of music, news, and comment.

If it's done with real news fairness, with hosts who appeal to young listeners, the service could offset assumptions that the US is anti-Arab, or against Islam. It's scheduled to begin by September, and will clearly identify its US origins.

Another startup is Radio Free Afghanistan, which will broadcast to various parts of that country in local languages. Its founders hope to fill a communications void there, help knit the country together, and lay a groundwork for democracy.

These projects, unlike the Pentagon's, are committed to uphold standards of accuracy and objectivity. Their audiences, however, will be skeptical. Americans should remember their own responses to other countries' attempts to polish their image here, such as Saudi Arabia's recent media campaign.

Still, it's an effort worth making. If the programs operate with openness and honesty, they should give audiences an alternative to what comes from either Hollywood, Madison Avenue, or local anti-US militants.

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