U.S. Intensifies the War of Words

The following article which appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on October 21, 2001, has been reposted here. It is an article about propaganda, reminding us that there is propaganda on both sides, not just the other. You can see the original article at http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2001/10/21/review/PROP21.htm

U.S. intensifies the war of words

By Beth Gillin
Sunday, October 21, 2001
Inquirer staff writer

The first thing to understand is that propaganda is something the other side does.

When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was interviewed Monday on the Arab-language channel Al-Jazeera, she explained that she did not want American networks to air Osama bin Laden tapes because they were "propaganda."

"[A] 15-minute or 20-minute tape . . . that sat there and did nothing but incite hatred and, ultimately, attacks against innocent Americans was not a matter of news, it was a matter of propaganda. . . .," Rice said.

In contrast, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described U.S. airdrops of food and pamphlets over Afghanistan last weekend, he said: "This is bringing needed food to hungry Afghan people, as well as a message of friendship from the American people."

The United States has used leafletting as a propaganda tool since at least World War I.

Whether it is called a fight to shape public opinion or a propaganda war, attempting to control the enemy's message while putting a positive spin on one's own is part of modern warfare.

Our side beams radio messages of friendship into Afghanistan in the Pashto and Dari languages. Their side takes journalists to an Afghan village leveled by Western bombs.

We call what we do getting the word out, delivering a message, even psychological warfare. But never propaganda.

"It has a negative connotation because of the Nazi era," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department policy planner on Mideast terrorism issues who heads Lehigh University's International Relations Department.

The dictionary defines it as "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause, or person."

"Most of winning this war is about winning the mindset," said Nancy Snow, who wrote Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World in 1998 after working for the U.S. Information Agency during the Clinton administration.

"The mission is propaganda; the euphemism in the U.S. is public information," said Snow, political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If this effort is going to take years, the government must keep the American people united. Spinning is critical to the war effort."

The Pentagon acknowledged as much Thursday, saying that it had hired a Washington public relations firm, the Rendon Group, to help shape its message. Rendon will, among other things, conduct focus groups and create a counter-terrorism Web site.

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Modern technology has made it both easier to deliver a message and harder to manage it.

In World War II, all governments could tightly control news and images, said Randall Bytwerk, a specialist in propaganda and persuasion and professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"They did not have CNN running 24 hours a day. The campaign is a lot harder today" for the United States, he said, which must deliver essentially the same message at home and in Afghanistan, to leaders in Pakistan and Israel, to Arab nations and European countries.

Until Rendon was hired, under a contract that pays $397,000 for 120 days, the Internet had not been a factor in the propaganda war.

Dissenters have gathered in chat rooms, but their protest "is not being covered very much," said Snow. In the Middle East, said Barkey, satellite dishes are common, but computers are not.

Television remains the most potent vehicle for a message, whether delivered by a mullah or a secretary of state.

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No matter how it is spread, propaganda comes in four basic varieties, said Arthur Siegel, social science professor at York University in Toronto, whose 1996 book Radio Canada International examines World War II and Cold War propaganda.

"The first level is the Big Lie, adapted by Hitler and Stalin. The state-controlled Egyptian press has been spreading a Big Lie, saying the World Trade Center was attacked by Israel to embarrass Arabs," said Siegel.

"The second layer says, 'It doesn't have to be the truth, so long as it's plausible.'

"The third strategy is to tell the truth but withhold the other side's point of view.

"The fourth and most productive is to tell the truth, the good and the bad, the losses and the gains.

"Governments in Western society take the last three steps. They avoid the Big Lie, which nobody here will swallow," Siegel said.

Lehigh's Barkey agreed. "We don't tell the maximum lie. We will obfuscate. We'll use language in a way that allows us to say things we don't mean."

Obfuscation? Asked last Sunday whether the United States might target other countries that support terrorists, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, said if "the coalition felt it was necessary to go after terrorist groups in other countries, this would be a matter for the coalition to discuss among themselves."

As for shading the truth, President Bush's message to schoolchildren Tuesday emphasized charity. As bombs were falling on Afghanistan, he told the children: "One way to fight evil is to fight it with kindness and love and compassion."

There are rules for propaganda, said Bytwerk, an expert on the Nazi kind. "There must be a simple, straightforward message, repetition, and an emotional as much as a rational appeal.

"If a message is too complicated, it gets lost in the fog. If it's not repeated, it's forgotten. If it isn't strongly emotional, it bounces off the mind and doesn't sink into the heart."

Simplicity, repetition and emotion are evident in the spin from both sides.

Both the Bush administration and al-Qaeda cast the struggle, in the simplest terms, as a fight between good and evil. The President repeatedly calls bin Laden "the evildoer" - almost a mirror image, Snow notes, of the characterization by some Muslims of America as "the Great Satan."

Televised images of the war-wounded from Al-Jazeera appeal to the heart. So does the President's request that every American child donate $1 for needy Afghan children.

Snow called the $1 plan "brilliant as a persuasion device."

Barkey said he was not so sure. "I have a nephew, 7, and his question was, 'We're bombing them, and we want to give them a dollar?' He was befuddled."

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  • Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

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