Media As Global Diplomat

Today, the Newseum hosted a remarkable day of panels and discussion on the “Media as Global Diplomat.” It was organized by the United States Institute of Peace, and contained some highly qualified men and women representing non-profit charitable organizations, the mainstream media (and Al Jazeera), and government. Major comments were delivered by Ambassador James Glassman, whose “valedictory address” at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs I will review later in the week. It’s been some time since he gave his speech, but it still remains important to consider.

I was unable to attend the event, but followed it as closely as I could via the audio from the web cast, and through the Twitter feed. I can’t speak to the keynote address or to the film that was shown, but I will take a few minutes to discuss the media panel, and the general understanding of what media can do as a global diplomat.

I had the opportunity to listen in on a panel that discussed the way in which global media can and does serve as an envoy on behalf of the United States. Keep in mind that to be a diplomat does not necessarily mean that a certain party is engaging in behavior that will improve an audience’s opinion of the people that he/she represents. Instead, they need only shape impressions and serve as a resource for developing an opinion.

Steve Sanford, who attended the conference and wrote a useful recap, notes that moderator Ted Koppel doesn’t necessarily share that opinion of the media’s role as global diplomat:

Ted Koppel, ever the devil’s advocate, prodded the panel into motion by proffering his own definition: that public diplomacy is “an oxymoron.” He said that publics are involved in many things, but “diplomacy” is never one of them. This yielded up a variety of working definitions of PD from the panel.

Koppel regularly noted a “cynic’s” definition of media, citing that the media cared almost exclusively about revenue streams and profits rather than acting on behalf of the United States. However, every time that a foreigner is looking at http://www.nytimes.com, watching American movies at home, or reading someone else’s magazine, they are acting as a very public diplomat.

With that understood, let us give credit to the representative from Viacom, who noted the importance and impact of MTV around the world. Rather than exporting shows like The Hills abroad, MTV worldwide should be commended  for its cultivation and celebration of artists in the regions that they broadcast. This respect and development of local talent illustrates an American willingness to legitimize global music and culture. Koppel can call it the pursuit of profit, and accountants can call it a good business model, but good business and good diplomacy do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Discussion of the Arab media model, specifically in television, reflect the seemingly impossible challenge of private corporations playing a significant role in the Middle East. Middle Eastern media were described as the “vanity projects” of wealthy businessmen, hemorrhaging money and existing for the sake of existing. In a capitalist media model, there is no clear reason to attempt to make major inroads in the medium of television. 

Public television (in more of BBC and PBS model than perhaps the Al Hurra model) may be the only way to have media serve as a global diplomat on the Arab television. If that’s the case, we’re going to have to get better.

From my observations, little discussion was really made of the “New” media. It seems evident that the digital divide is impacting Americans domestically and abroad, and with the multitude of opportunities to reach audiences, much of private media is scratching its head and wondering how it should move forward, especially in an environment where it is so hard to remain viable at home. Of course, watching Bam Margera fly a kite attached to anal beads on Jackass, it might be better off that American media stays out of the diplomacy game.

If you did attend the event, please be sure to add comments, or post links to your twitter feeds and blogs to give readers a better sense of what happened. I’ll update this post with links as I find them.

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