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While State Department official Karen Hughes was wrapping up her listening tour of the Middle East, an important session of United Nations representatives was taking place in Geneva.
Ms. Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, was assessing how the United States government might better communicate with Arabs and Muslims abroad. The U.N. meeting was tackling the issue of how much authority the United States ought to have in overseeing world information that would help the United States do so.
There are at least two versions of what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other Gulf cities -- of the flooding, the death and breathtaking destruction, and of the governmental response. Sharply different stories are being told, one by domestic broadcasters, the view from their bubble; the other by foreign broadcasters, as seen from their bubble.
TV viewers in Iraq want to laugh and be entertained. Unlike voyeuristic viewers elsewhere in the Middle East, who gravitate more toward pan-Arabic satellite news channels where mayhem matters, TV viewers in Iraq prefer local knockoffs of the "The Newlywed Game," "Saturday Night Live," and lottery programs.
During the invasion of Iraq and for several months afterward, there were 700 embedded reporters with U.S. and coalition troops. Literally thousands of stories flowed from those reporters: from inside battle zones; from the streets of Baghdad where a young person would be observed rubbing the sole of the shoe on a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein dragged through the street; from dancing crowds enveloping coalition troops. All this in news reports helped shape early public perceptions about the Iraq war.
As Karen Hughes begins to settle into her new office, she must see that one priority for U.S. public diplomacy is to get reporters out of Baghdad.
No, not get reporters out of Iraq: Just get them out of their bureaus in the capital.
The hottest news broadcaster these days is not one of the American network news anchors. He is not even an American, but a Russian. His name is Andrei Babitsky ("The Evening News, with Andrei Babitsky"?)
He is, of all things, a U.S. government-funded employee, a broadcast news correspondent for the congressionally-supported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).