Truth—the Best Propaganda?


For most of the Cold War, the United States' "public diplomacy" efforts mostly emanated from the United States Information Agency, which generally set up shop in embassies and libraries abroad, attempting to counter Soviet propaganda and get out the good Yankee word. Since the agency was killed in 1999 (its duties were folded into the State Deptartment), former USIA hands have become pretty embittered about what they feel was a short-sighted kneecapping of the crucial hearts-and-minds mission.

The Iraq-propaganda story, unsurprisingly, has been the straw that broke this particular camel's back. Here's an excerpt from a Dec. 18 column by retired USIA vet Guy Farmer:

During my 28-year career with the old U.S. Information Agency, one of my specialties was foreign media placement. And not once, never, did I pay for placement because that was the only way to maintain credibility with our local media contacts. What the Pentagon doesn't understand—and may never understand—is that once you start paying for media placement, your credibility is shot to hell and you've moved from the semi-respectable public affairs/public diplomacy business over the line into the murky world of paid publicity and advertising. That's a dividing line that every self-respecting journalist, Americans and foreigners alike, understands.

A personal anecdote: Early in my Foreign Service career, while serving as American embassy press attache in a Latin American democracy, I discovered that another agency of our government was paying for media placement. I immediately went to the ambassador and asked him to put a stop to that sub-rosa media activity on grounds that it was unethical and furthermore, that we could afford only one press attache at a time. He agreed and told the other guys to cease and desist, much to their chagrin. We—myself and my Press Section colleagues—went on to set media placement records in that front-line country, which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons.

Whole thing here. And here's a more recent account from old USIA Nigeria hand Patricia Lee Sharpe. Excerpt:

Working in Nigeria as a USIS Information Officer counteracting Soviet disinformation, I made an astonishing but reassuring discovery: facts are powerful and truth trumps fiction rather easily. A quick consultation with researchers back in Washington would give us what we needed to set the record straight on the latest gross distortion of US history or policy. We'd generate an honest story in a lively style with a Nigerian angle and it would be published.

Public diplomacy during the USIA era had an amazing placement record, but the whole process depended on credibility. Our material was self-serving, of course, but it was reprinted by influential local publications because it was relevant and trustworthy. That respect rested on two pillars: facts–and honest open attribution. Nothing phoney. Nothing hidden. We didn't slip cash to editors or reporters. We didn't conceal our authorship. […]

Of course, we had nothing to hide in those days either.

Another thing: This extremely effective USIA information operation in Nigeria was an incredibly inexpensive, in-house operation.

Both links via John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review.