Hi Times

Citizen Powell's State Department publishing adventure


The way the scolds and naysayers are gloating over Hi magazine's lousy newsstand sell-through, you'd think every other new magazine launch was a smashing success.

The State Department's maiden effort in publishing an Arabic language magazine for teenyboppers saw its circulation rise from "one to three copies" in its first two editions, gloats a bookshop employee in Sidon, Lebanon. "You can take the whole pile if you want," jokes a Cairo newspaper vendor. "Nobody wants to buy it, anyway." Hi is "another example of the confusion and I would even say total incompetence of U.S. official organs in dealing with the issue of Arab public opinion," says Daily Star executive editor Rami Khoury. "I think they just don't get it."

So a new magazine is tanking on the newsstand. That's what the overwhelming majority of new magazines do. Where were all the daggers when Seven Days bit the dust? When The Industry Standard shriveled up? When Talk went silent? I'm not here to bury Hi! But I'm not here to praise it either. While any medium that gets more publicity for the great Tony Shalhoub (subject of an admiring profile in the fist issue) is A-OK in my book, I suspect the prophets of doom are more right than wrong on this one. Hi will win neither hearts nor minds. In the context of state-sponsored cultural efforts, however, the effects of Hi and its cohorts in Foggy Bottom multimedia may be more complex.

The basics: Hi is the U.S. State Department's effort to "build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world," says Christopher Ross, special coordinator for public diplomacy. The monthly magazine has an annual budget of $4.2 million—although, as is often the case where your taxes are being spent, officials make an effort to seem especially shifty and secretive about the financials. Along with Radio Sawa and a planned 24-hour Arabic cable news channel, Hi aims to be scrupulously inoffensive. The magazine's stated goal is to eschew politics in favor of cultural and social material that gives a more positive or balanced view of the United States to its readers. (This apolitical tone has ironically turned out to be the most controversial aspect of the magazine so far, about which more in a moment.) Hi is published under contract by The Magazine Group a D.C.-based design and custom publishing firm that also publishes of the award-winning journals Diabetes Forecast, Concrete Masonry, and Principal. It's in Arabic, so you have to read it backwards. And the name Hi means the same thing and sounds as insipid in Arabic as it does in English.

In a highly unfavorable review of Hi's first few issues at Middle East Report, editor Chris Toensing and Brown University professor Elliott Colla disdain the magazine's claim of avoiding politics:

The spotlight on sandboarding, a pastime limited to a tiny subset of Western tourists in the Arab world, so soon in the magazine's life span might beg the question of whether the editors are already exhausting the available grist for the mill of inter-cultural dialogue. The better question, however, is not whether there are enough innocuous lifestyle topics to round out the pages of Hi in perpetuity, but rather whether, as a whole, these topics are truly "non-political." Not only is there is [sic] something profoundly political about the editors' assertion that the magazine contains no politics, but Hi's process of presenting its content as non-political involves a significant amount of repression and revision.

It's possible to disagree on the political content Toensing and Colla would apparently prefer (I don't think Hi would be much improved if it asked penetrating questions about budget cuts in the U.S. public university system or America's shrinking social safety net), and still see the validity of their argument. The flavorlessness of Hi—in addition to some comically inane pop culture Q&As, Toensing and Colla single out a bowdlerized, substantially rewritten translation of a poem by Suheir Hammad, which was apparently published in violation of copyright—will do more to undermine its message than the more obvious political questions that would face any American publication for an Arab audience.

Strategic government sponsorship of culture has a long and entertaining career; in its 61-year history, Voice of America's frequently warts-and-all reporting on domestic U.S. news has made for one of the oddest governmental information arms ever devised. Probably the most storied effort at cultural export was the CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which began in the late 1940s as an effort to win over Europe's anti-Communist left, and ended up sponsoring Metropolitan Opera tours, art exhibits, and the legendary Encounter magazine.

The punchline to the CCF story is that Encounter was by most accounts the best magazine of its day, publishing the cream of America's literary culture in the fifties and not really losing a step until its sources of financing were exposed in the late sixties. I've never seen Encounter, and the only fragment I've come across is this review of the musical Hair, which manages to be codgerly, game, and indulgent all at once. Still, for all the (probably disingenuous) hand-wringing that surrounded the magazine's funding, a great highbrow magazine seems an almost entirely benign form of government intervention.

And a completely useless one. The cultural Cold War ultimately had nothing to do with high culture. In retrospect, and with all due respect to the keyboard stylings of Van Cliburn, it seems perverse that the United States would choose to compete with the USSR at the level of symphonic music or ballet or classical piano, which were among the few arts the Russians actually did better than the Americans—and more to the point, were far removed from the street fashions, rock 'n' roll music, and Hollywood blockbusters that the Russian people, starved for informal culture, really wanted from the United States. Decisive victory for American ideas came entirely through unofficial channels and low culture.

Hi doesn't seem to be in any danger of excessive loftiness, but it may be an even more serious case of an agency misjudging its audience. When Charlotte Beers, the short-lived undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, sketched her "Shared Values" campaign in 2001, she noted that the "people we need to talk to do not even know the basics about us. They are taught to distrust our every motive." While the second half of that statement is true, the first is wildly wrong: Arab teenagers of the well-read classes have a disturbingly complete command of detailed, specific information about American life and culture. There is nothing, not a single thing, Hi magazine can tell them about American life that they don't already know. And they already have dozens of glossy magazines vying for their attention, offering pure entertainment rather than good-for-you outreach. By making inoffensiveness a top priority, Hi takes off the table orneriness, intellectual ferment, the joy of challenging and being challenged. Like the CCF before it, it insists on playing America's weakest hand.

Ironically, the one thing that might make this magazine stand out would be political content. What does it say to an Arab audience that U.S. government-funded media are unwilling to take a full-blooded stand on the matter of American foreign policy? For that matter, what does it say to the rest of us, whose taxes are paying for the thing? Lively and compelling presentation of American political debate should be the magazine's strongest, and possibly only, selling point; questions about American policy are the only questions Arabs have for Americans these days. Avoiding that debate may pacify the dictatorships where Hi is seeking distribution, but it fails the readership in two ways—generating a bland product that also manages to sound shady and untrustworthy. The potential readers of Hi are already conditioned to see anything coming from the American government as propaganda. As it turns out, that judgment is too kind: Propagandists have the courage of their convictions.