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Context of 'September 15, 2003: GAO: Bush Administration’s Public Relations Policies towards Arabs, Muslims Failing'

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A State Department program designed to “market” America as a “brand” to Arabs is greeted with skepticism and, sometimes, derision. The advertising campaign, called “Shared Values,” was conceived by Charlotte Beers, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a former advertising executive (see October 2, 2001). The concept is to “sell” America in the Arab world by emphasizing the “shared values” held by both Americans and Arabs. [Rich, 2006, pp. 31-32] The program is based on four videos, centering on the lives of four “average” American Muslims—a schoolteacher, a doctor, a baker, and the director of the National Institutes of Health. [New York Times, 10/30/2002] Beers said in a June Senate hearing that the US must pay closer attention to expanding communication with “the mainstream of young adults” so as “to give them, ultimately, a new world view.… The young will lead us.” The “Shared Values” program is the central thrust of that effort. [Office of International Information Programs, US Department of State, 6/11/2002] The videos show American Muslims in their homes, at softball games, and at their jobs. They tell Arab viewers that they have experienced no prejudice against them after the 9/11 attacks, and describe how they live and work well with Christians, Jews, and Hindus. “I don’t think there is any other country in the world where different people from different countries are as accepted and welcomed as members of a society,” says one. But many Arabs do not believe the rosy depiction of life as an American Muslims, and call the videos patronizing and simplistic. (Some State Department officials privately agree with that characterization, but were powerless to influence their creation and dissemination.) Other Arabs call the videos nothing but American propaganda. [New York Times, 10/30/2002] In 2006, author Frank Rich will call the videos akin to “testimonial commercials for new household products.” Many Arab countries, particularly in the Middle East, refuse to run the videos, saying that they do not adequately address the US’s policies in that region. [Rich, 2006, pp. 31-32] In September 2003, the “Shared Values” program and other such public relations initiatives will be judged to be failures by the General Accounting Office (see September 15, 2003).

Entity Tags: Charlotte Beers, Frank Rich, General Accounting Office, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Print ad for the ‘Shared Values’ videotapes. The videos are distributed by the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU), an organization created by the US State Department.Print ad for the ‘Shared Values’ videotapes. The videos are distributed by the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU), an organization created by the US State Department. [Source: Council of American Muslims for Understanding / Sheldon Rampton] (click image to enlarge)The General Accounting Office (GAO) releases a report showing that the $1 billion spent annually by the Bush administration to polish America’s image among Arab populations has largely gone to waste. Polls in predominantly Arab and Muslim nations show anti-American sentiments are steadily rising despite the US’s advertising efforts. (In many of these nations, Osama bin Laden has higher favorability ratings than President Bush.) The GAO report finds numerous reasons for this widespread failure. Among them are:
bullet The State Department’s scattershot, uncoordinated efforts;
bullet Foreign service officers charged with promoting America’s image spend too much time on paperwork, and 20 percent of those officers do not fluently speak the language of the country in which they are stationed;
bullet The US government’s failure to not scientifically measure the effects of its public relations programs, instead relying on anecdotal evidence. [USA Today, 9/15/2003]
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is at a loss to explain the problem. “Americans are brilliant at communication,” he says. “Why in the world we are all thumbs in this particular area just strikes me as one of the anomalies of history. But it’s an important one to solve pretty fast.” The State Department’s first Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Charlotte Beers (see October 2, 2001), resigned in March for what the administration called “health reasons,” and has not yet been replaced. Beers is responsible for the failed “Shared Values” program, which relied on commercially slick video reports to sway Muslim and Arab public opinion (see Late October, 2002). [New York Times, 3/3/2003; USA Today, 9/15/2003; Center for Media and Democracy, 10/17/2007] Beers’s biggest success may have been Radio Sawa, an American radio station broadcasting throughout much of the Middle East that broadcasts US-based pop music, with 10-minute news broadcasts every hour from American government sources. [USA Today, 9/15/2003]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Radio Sawa, Charlotte Beers, Bush administration (43), General Accounting Office, Richard Lugar

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The General Accounting Office (GAO) finds that the Bush administration broke two federal laws as part of its publicity campaign to promote its new Medicare prescription drug policies. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) illegally spent federal monies on what amounts to covert propaganda in producing and distributing “video news releases,” or VNRs, to local television news broadcasters around the country that were designed to look like objective news reports (see March 15, 2004). The GAO findings do not carry legal weight, because the GAO acts as an adviser to Congress. The viewers in the more than 40 cities who saw the reports did not know they were watching government-produced videos anchored by public relations “flacks” paid by HHS who were not real reporters. The VNRs have only fueled criticism of the Medicare prescription drug coverage program, which gives private health care firms and prescription drug companies a much larger role in providing and setting prices for Medicare recipients’ prescriptions. Democrats have long insisted that the law cripples Medicare beneficiaries’ ability to receive low-cost prescriptions in favor of funneling Medicare dollars into the pharmaceutical companies’ coffers; with the GAO findings, Democrats now say that the government used illegal propaganda tactics to “sell” the citizenry on the new program. The administration has already admitted that the program will cost hundreds of billions of dollars more than originally claimed. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) calls the videos “another example of how this White House has misrepresented its Medicare plan.” Kerry’s Senate colleague, Edward Kennedy (D-MA), says: “The new GAO opinion is yet another indictment of the deception and dishonesty that has become business as usual for the Bush administration. It was bad enough to conceal the cost of the Medicare drug bill from the Congress and the American people. It is worse to use Medicare funds for illegal propaganda to try to turn this lemon of a bill into lemonade for the Bush campaign.” The Bush administration continues to insist that the VNR program is legal. “GAO opinions are not binding on the executive branch. That’s an opinion of the GAO. We don’t agree,” says HHS spokesman Bill Pierce, who justifies the VNR usage by pointing to their ubiquitous usage in corporate settings. Asked if he understands that a viewer might be angry at being led to believe that the VNRs were real news stories, Pierce replies, “If I’m a viewer, I’d be angry at my television station.” [Washington Post, 5/20/2004; Los Angeles Times, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: John Kerry, Bill Pierce, Bush administration (43), Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, General Accounting Office, US Department of Health and Human Services

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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