Back in 2002 and 2003, former Reason editor Charles Paul Freund was arguing that it was pop culture, not heavy-handed propaganda, that would ultimately promote liberalization in the Arab world. If you haven't read Freund's brilliant essay "In Praise of Vulgarity," do so right now (and his equally fantastic essay on the liberating power of Arab pop videos). And now we discover, according to cables revealed by Wikileaks, that it took American diplomats in the Middle East years to figure out what Reason readers long knew. From The Guardian:
Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in Jeddah.
Broadcast uncensored and with Arabic subtitles alongside sitcoms such as Friends on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 channel, the shows are being allowed as part of the kingdom's "war of ideas" against extremist elements. According to a secret cable titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence", they have been proving more effective than Washington's main propaganda tool, the US-funded al-Hurra TV news channel….
"It's still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana [a channel part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other US propaganda never could," two Saudi media executives told a US official in a meeting at a Jeddah branch of Starbucks. "Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before," the May 2009 cable says.
The popularity of the channels is particularly surprising given Rotana broadcasts Fox News, the rightwing News Corp channel that takes a hard line against Islamic radicalism and has strongly supported US military intervention in the Middle East.