Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hercules Had it Easy By Comparison

The WaPo is running an article tonight (for Sunday's edition) about the "Herculean" task set before U.S. Embassy Islamabad's public affairs office. That task is to correct for the record the most egregious of the false and malicious anti-American reports in Pakistan's news media.

Considering how awful the Pakistani news media is, and how much raw material the U.S. government keeps giving them as it expands its presence all over Pakistan, I would say that Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Larry Schwartz has his work cut out for him. Actually, I think the WaPo's use of the word "Herculean" is incredibly optimistic. Hercules completed his Twelve Labors, but Larry Schwartz is fighting an endless tide of hysterical rumor-mongering that is constantly being fed by the USG's own big-footed behavior. A more apt term for the PAO's job in Pakistan would be "Sisyphean."

U.S. embassy launches campaign to correct errors in Pakistani media:

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Some reports are deemed "a paranoid fabrication," such as the claim that all Pakistanis are stripped naked in U.S. airports.

Others are "false and malicious," such as the one about the Americans moving Pakistani Taliban leaders to Afghanistan to prepare them for an upcoming battle against Pakistan's army.

So says the U.S. Embassy here, which for nearly eight months has issued statements countering every major error about American foreign policy that it finds in Pakistan's boisterous media.

It's a Herculean task that embassy officials say has been undertaken by no other U.S. mission in the world -- because nowhere else, those officials say, does U.S. policy face such disdain and misrepresentation.

The statements -- called "Corrections for the Record" -- are issued a handful of times a month. Whether they are effective is hard to measure, though embassy officials express confidence. Taken together, the missives serve as a chronicle of the uphill battle the U.S. government faces in Pakistan in its sometimes clumsy efforts to influence opinion.

Much is at stake. The Obama administration views Pakistan as a crucial partner in its fight against Islamist terrorism, and it has spent the past year trying to convince Pakistanis that the United States is a steadfast, well-intentioned ally. So far the public has not been swayed: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 17 percent of Pakistanis view the United States favorably, and only 8 percent expressed faith in President Obama -- his lowest rating in 22 countries surveyed.

The corrections have challenged widely believed theories in a nation with a penchant for conspiracies: that Americans were behind deadly bombings ("absurd, baseless") or plotting a "massive infiltration" by U.S. Marines of Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal areas ("entirely false").

The correction campaign comes as the media in Pakistan grow in size and influence. As of 2002, there was one state-owned television station in Pakistan. Now there are more than 90 private channels, many of which feature roundtable-style political debate, plus countless newspapers, magazines and journals.

The content is raucous and the journalists free to publish, within certain nebulous limits; many avoid criticism of the powerful security establishment, though they savage the civilian government. The United States, which is expanding its footprint here, often features as an all-powerful schemer, a depiction embassy officials complain is exacerbated when Pakistani journalists do not seek the American side of the story.

Some observers, though, say the real problem is the two nations' spy novel-like relations. Secrets surround so many aspects of the relationship that the resulting vacuum is easily filled by rumors.

Against that backdrop, some Pakistani journalists say, official embassy denials carry little weight. "Our government does not have a history of giving out information. If the U.S. pulls another Pakistan on the Pakistani media . . . it's only natural they would be hostile," media analyst Adnan Rehmat said. "The hostility stems from this space where secrecy is the norm."

That attitude has been compounded by confirmations -- in the American press -- of reports that initially seemed to be wacky conspiracy theories, said Huma Yusuf, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. Those CIA drones that strike militant mountain hideouts? Turned out they are indeed allowed by Pakistan, despite the government's public denials. The rumors about U.S. troops on Pakistani soil? American officials confirmed in 2008 that U.S. commandos had conducted a ground raid, and more recently that about 200 Special Forces are training elements of Pakistan's military.

Still, Yusuf said, many of Pakistan's newly minted journalists are learning as they go, and "making stuff up" is a common way to generate news.

"If you can take even the slightest thing and turn it into a story that proves the U.S. is the evil demon . . . it's going to sell papers," Yusuf said.

Embassy officials say that they have stepped up interaction with Pakistani media but that the embassy's press shop -- set to grow to five people by next year -- is small for the job.

The U.S. Special Envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, has met with Pakistani journalists on many of his visits, as have many U.S. lawmakers while passing through, said Larry Schwartz, the embassy's senior spokesman. They often focus on the less clandestine aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, such as aid for power plants and schools, even if the news media do not.

"We really are trying to develop a meaningful and supportive relationship with this country," Schwartz said. "The distortions that we see in the media do need to be countered."

In this duel, the embassy says its biggest foe is the Nation, an English-language newspaper. It has published photos of houses it says were rented by menacing American operatives employed by the security company Blackwater; in one case, according to a U.S. embassy correction, the resident was a U.S. aid worker.

More recently, the newspaper reported what it called "stark confirmation of the vicious U.S. agenda": police had detained a U.S. military official driving an "ammunition-laden vehicle" and "trading heavy weaponry." The embassy retorted that the truck carried "equipment" used in the Special Forces training, with the consent of authorities.

Shireen Mizari, the editor of The Nation, responded to questions about its coverage and the embassy corrections in her column.

"If the police confirm a piece of information, we have no reason to doubt it," she wrote of the article about the truck. Regarding the house photos, she wrote that "if we see anyone doing something suspicious, it is our job to report it."

But the market for English-language newspapers is small. Television, where 70 percent of Pakistanis get their news and anti-Western venom flows, may be the biggest arbiter of public opinion. The embassy rarely issues corrections about television reports, which are too numerous to monitor.

Even so, the Americans might want to lighten up, Rehmat said. Given the surge in programming, most has nothing to do with the United States, and some is even positive, he said. Instead of corrections, the embassy should focus on getting more American scholars, scientists, artists and athletes into Pakistan to mingle with journalists -- not just Washington officials.

"For us, America is either Obama or Bush, or it's 50 Cent and Michael Jackson," he said. "We're missing all the other amazing spectrum."

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