The Trouble With Propaganda TV

James Kirchick writing about China’s plans to launch a “Chinese CNN” to join the existing English-language propaganda networks from Russia (Russia Today) and Iran (Press TV) remarks:

Of course, there’s no scientific way to gauge whether or not these efforts will work, but I’d like to think that most Americans (if not most Europeans) will not be won over by the crude propaganda of countries that kill journalists and threaten to (or actually) launch unprovoked attacks against their neighbors. Never mind the cheesy production values and propagandistic mien of these stations. As long as countries like China, Russia and Iran continue their internally repressive and externally aggressive behavior, I don’t see how spending massive gobs of money on TV will improve their reputations.

I think the problem is more fundamental than that. I mean, who wants to watch a propaganda channel? There’s already lots of English-language television channels a person could be watching. I’m more sympathetic than most U.S. observers to the Kremlin point-of-view and even appeared once on Russia Today, but I’m never sitting on the couch saying to myself “gee, if only my cable provider carried an English-language Russian propaganda channel!” It’s just a stupid idea on its face. It’s worth noting that al-Hurra, America’s effort to launch an Arabic language propaganda public diplomacy network, has floundered from the beginning for basically the same reason — it doesn’t matter what your message is if nobody’s watching.

In all these cases, countries could, of course, improve foreigners’ perceptions of them by changing the actual policies that lead to the bad perceptions. But alongside that you would, of course, want a communications strategy. But what a country needs to do is go to where the audience is. That would be foreign governments engaging more directly and effectively with English-language media in the United States and American officials engaging directly with al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and other popular Arabic-language media.