Don’t Blame Arab Media

While US public diplomacy efforts in the Arab world continue to focus on ventures like Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa, a new study shows that media in any form only plays a limited role in shaping Arab attitudes toward the US.

Last week I noted that in its 2004 "Impressions of America" study, Zogby International found that negative Arab attitudes toward American foreign policy continued to drive down Arab public opinion of American values, people and products, and overall attitudes toward the US.

But this 2004 poll of 3,300 adult Arabs in six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon) had another object as well. As we surveyed public opinion to measure how Arabs viewed America, we also sought to determine how Arabs learned about America and how different sources of information impacted overall attitudes.

What we found was that less than one in five of the Arabs we surveyed had either been to the US or knew any Americans. The overwhelming majority of Arabs, therefore, having no direct experience to draw on, relied on "received knowledge," or indirect sources of information, to form their opinions. (Coincidentally, these percentages are the same for Americans, whose knowledge of the Arab world is also based largely on indirect or "received knowledge.")

What we learned was that for over one third of all those surveyed the principal sources of information about the US was seeing or hearing Arab commentaries about the US in the Arab media. A slightly larger group have books about the US, have seen American movies, or have watched American television programs.

A significant majority of Arabs liked the Americans they have met and wanted to meet more Americans. But a majority either had negative or mixed experiences during their visits to the US.

It is important to note that Arabs who have visited the US or who know Americans had only slightly more positive attitudes toward America and American values, people, and products than Arabs who had no such direct experiences. However, with regard to attitudes toward US policy, there is no appreciable difference between the opinions of Arabs who have been to the US and those who have not. Both groups give US policy in Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict low single-digit favorable ratings.

The same holds true for Arabs who claim to have learned about America from watching US television programs. Their attitudes toward American values, people, and products are slightly higher but their attitudes toward the US and US policies are unaffected.

On the other hand, Arabs whose principal source of information about the US comes directly from Arab media have somewhat more unfavorable attitudes toward the US, its people, values, and products (except in the case of Saudi Arabia where this group actually holds more positive views.) But here, as well, there is no impact in their attitudes toward US policy.

Thus it appears that despite the source of information, whether direct or indirect, Arabs, in general, have overwhelming negative views toward American policy in the Arab world and this creates deeply negative attitudes toward the US itself.

While all of this may seem obvious to some, there are important lessons to be learned from these findings.

Some of the leading proponents of expanding US public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East have based their thinking on false assumptions derived from an outdated model, none of which are substantiated by empirical data. By approaching the Arab world as if it were the Soviet Bloc behind a 21st Century version of the "Iron Curtain," serious mistakes have been made and resources have been wasted.

US relations with the Arab world have historically been quite warm, especially with the countries covered in our survey. No "Iron Curtain" separated Arabs from America or Americans. Tens of millions of Arabs have visited, studied in, or done business with the US. And unlike the Soviet system, the Arab world has been open to US cultural products (books, movies, and television). Most Arab networks carry American television programs and many Arab satellites even bring American television networks directly to an Arab audience.

The assumptions that shaped US thinking during the Soviet era do not apply in the case of the Arab world today. Sharply declining Arab public attitude toward the US can not be blamed on either a lack of information or on the Arab media. Arabs who have been to the US, who know Americans, or who have learned about the US from watching American television are as angry with American policy and have nearly as unfavorable attitudes toward the US as those who have no such direct or indirect experience with the US.

None of this should suggest that public diplomacy visitor programs, exchanges, and information programs are wasted. But the expenditure of huge sums on the development of alternative media, á la "Radio Free Europe," are not useful.

Arabs want to visit the US, meet Americans, and watch American television and they are free to do so. More of those efforts do have an impact on improving understanding. But as long as US policy in the region remains as it is, these public diplomacy efforts are, at best, fingers plugging holes in a leaking dyke.

The central problem separating Arabs from America is not the Arab media, nor is it a lack of information–it is all about policy.