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Background Briefing


Sunday 7 July 2002

Culture bombs


Stan Correy: The War on Terror is about hunting down Osama bin Laden and killing as many Al Qa'ida members as possible, and destroying their terrorist networks. It will be just as important, and perhaps harder, to destroy the hold they have on the hearts and minds of many people in Arab countries and the Muslim world. To do that, the Bush Administration has called in all the resources of popular culture: movies, television, music and advertising.

Propaganda: words and images crafted to influence mass opinion and defeat enemies on a psychological battlefield.

'God Bless America'

Call it propaganda, public relations, accentuating the positive or polishing the American brain, Hollywood entertainment is a powerful ambassador for the popular culture.

What roles will the creative community play in the current crisis?

Stan Correy: That's from the website of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and it's the introduction from a seminar they held in December called Hollywood Goes to War. Question mark.

Hallo, this is Background Briefing, I'm Stan Correy.

Everyone, even Osama bin Laden, agrees that American popular culture is a powerful global phenomenon. Entertainment in all its forms is America's No.1 export; there's a strong belief in the corridors of power in Washington DC, that American popular culture can be a significant weapon in the war on terror. The foreign policy experts call it public diplomacy, or soft power.

Republican Congressman Henry Hyde can't understand why America's global entertainment industry isn't delivering more results on the ground in the Middle East.

Henry Hyde: Much of the popular press overseas often including the government-owned media, daily depict the United States as a force for evil. How has this state of affairs come about? How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas? Over the years, the images of mindless hatred directed at us, have become familiar fixtures on our television screens .

Stan Correy: And in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Democrat Senator Joe Biden.

Joe Biden: No matter how powerful our military, we will not be able to achieve all our foreign policy objectives if we lose the war of ideas. Public diplomacy: we must use our most powerful tools, truth, truth, credibility and openness. As the legendary journalist and former USIA Director, Edward R. Murrow said, 'Truth is the best propaganda, and lies the worst.' All we want is a real chance for the facts to come before the people of the world, particularly I would say at this moment, the Muslim world, 1.2-billion people, and let them make up their own minds. I'm not asking to be loved, I'm not asking to be embraced, I'm just asking that we have a fair chance to be understood.

Stan Correy: Asking for only the truth about American goodwill and democratic freedom is not going to be straightforward. People around the world know the difference between marketing, advertising and spin, and the complexities of real life. Nevertheless the Bush Administration hired the best and the brightest public relations and advertising experts to get into the minds of people in the Middle East. A former spin doctor for the CIA, John Rendon, is travelling the world on a healthy budget from the Pentagon. And while the Pentagon's disinformation office was closed down in February, the man behind the scenes, Rendon, is still on the job. Last week he was in Singapore, handing out advice to the Singapore government on fighting terrorism. Following Rendon's travels for the New Republic magazine is Franklin Foer.

Franklin Foer: He travelled through the Muslim world creating ads where he would interview clerics and then re-version those interviews into ads, where clerics talked about how the United States didn't really truly hate Islam. The ads focused on how good life is in the United States for American Muslims, so yes, in a sense he's using vehicles of mass culture to try to shape opinion.

Stan Correy: Franklin Foer. The other person working very close to the President, and heading the culture wars, is former boss of the ad agency, Ogilvy and Mather, Charlotte Beers. One of her most famous ad campaigns was for this product.

Head and Shoulders Commercial

Good news on dandruff. Research shows nothing is more effective than Head and Shoulders. Its micro ZPT formula helps eliminate dandruff and regular use helps keep it away. Swap your old shampoo...

Stan Correy: Charlotte Beers is now in the State Department at Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and she spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently.

Senator Biden: Charlotte, madame secretary -

Charlotte Beers: Yes, Charlotte's fine.

Senator Biden: The floor is yours.

Charlotte Beers: Chairman Biden and distinguished members -

Stan Correy: Charlotte Beers talked about her work to change the Muslim mind.

Charlotte Beers: I believe we have to enter the turbulent and faster moving information revolution aggressively, to build a larger presence, and I would call it from my background in the advertising and marketing world a larger share of voice. We have to continue to strengthen and defend that business which we do well, which is our ability to speak with government officials and elites, but at the same time we really must enlarge our communication with the mainstream of young adults.

Stan Correy: Young adults in the Middle East are the generation that everyone sees as the key to winning the culture wars. They are the prospective suicide bombers, the educated and the poor, and the young elites who have seen the West and for whatever reason, hate it.

The Beers and Rendon machine for marketing ideas and US culture doesn't have the support of everyone in Washington.

Franklin Foer: There's a measure of scepticism that both Beers and Rendon face from within the bureaucracy of the Pentagon and State Department. And in part it's because they look at these people, they look at Beers and Rendon, and they see somewhat wasteful programs. It is, after all, very difficult to measure how these programs affect public opinion, and Rendon especially has run up pretty huge tabs with his programs; according to some sources I have in the Pentagon he's been paid over $7-million since September 11th to do this perception management work, as he likes to call it. And that's a lot of money. It doesn't sound like that much money in the realm of Pentagon budgets but it as described to me as kind of the equivalent of the $500 toilet seats at the Pentagon is so famous for buying. It's a very, very, expensive product with very banal results.

Stan Correy: And when you hear some of Charlotte Beers' suggestions for converting hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim world, you do begin to wonder. One of her projects is to have something like a pantechnicon travelling through the Middle East carrying what she calls 'An American Room'. This is a kind of travelling high-tech theme park, to be taken on tour through cities and villages.

Charlotte Beers: We're designing something wonderful called An American Room that will use virtual reality to depict and try to approximate the experience of being in America. We might have the Gettysburg Address when you hit a button, we might be able to see a scene from Oklahoma! We'll have computers linked to databanks, we will be able to reproduce a street in a typical American city, and the viewers standing there can tap another button and find someone like them in the United States. And the wonder of this is the design team we have and the unlimited potential of technology. And here's the exciting thing: we hope to place these rooms in universities, in libraries, in malls and travelling even by bus to smaller towns. And we've done enough exploring with potential universities and libraries in the Middle East and so on, to know that they're interested.

Stan Correy: Charlotte Beers says her office has done extensive market research in the Arab and Muslim world to test her ideas, and they like it. But Background Briefing played the Beers plan to a variety of experts in Arab and Muslim culture. Islamic specialist and writer, Malise Ruthven.

Malise Ruthven: Well I think judging from that clip, it sounds like a recipe for total disaster. I think it'll probably lead to many more people in joining up in Islamist movements. I think it will simply confirm a lot of Muslims in their disdain and hostility to Western culture. I mean I think you've got to have cultural engagement, and I mean part of the problem with September 11th was prior to September 11th , we now know that not only were the FBI and CIA at loggerheads, so they were really bad on exchanging information, but information was limited because the old-style intelligence work, which actually involves talking to people on a human basis, had been replaced by purely electronic monitoring. You didn't have the interaction, whereas where you have cultural interaction, you then have dialogue and the boundaries, and the battlelines become greatly softened.

Stan Correy: Others say this troubling roadshow with the Gettysburg Address and scenes from Oklahoma, will only typify what people dislike.

Hazem Saghieyeh: This rhetoric, this discourse, this tendency to impose the uniqueness of America to export the American way of life, way of thinking, if you like, is a bit naïve. The Western powers should know how to invade us, please invade us culturally! I mean in order to be able to spread your culture, you have to give something in politics, in development. This is not on the horizon, and this complicates very much the cultural task, and helps to reinforce, to strengthen the argument of the fundamentalists and the reactionaries.

Stan Correy: Hazem Saghieyeh is Lebanese, a political editor working in London for the influential Arabic newspaper Al Hayat.

Film maker Ziad Doueiri doesn't think the American Room caravanserai would draw crowds in the Middle Eat. On the phone from Hollywood, Ziad Doueri.

Ziad Doueiri: Anything propaganda is questionable to me, OK? I think American pop culture has already taken over the Arab world. I mean the Arab world is not a communist world, it's far from a communist world. The Arab world is very capitalistic, more than you can ever imagine, and we're flooded by American media, we're flooded by American product and everything. So if they want to take it one more step and humanize it , instead of just showing us Beverley Hills 90210, or stuff they want to make something more real, I think it could help. I mean if they asked me I would get involved. But I don't know their agenda totally. And to be very honest, sometimes I'm a little bit cautious of what this government is doing at this time.

Stan Correy: Ziad Doueiri. He's an interesting man, his first film, the award-winning West Beirut couldn't get financial funding in the Arab world because of its political content. So he relied on French money. He's also well connected in Hollywood, working on such pop classics as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. In this cultural confusion, both politicians and Hollywood are unsure about what exactly are the most culturally appropriate messages to transmit to the Middle East.

These masters of persuasion, the Hollywood financiers and producers, know what they do has tremendous potential power, and yet they claim to be just pragmatists who want to make good films that make money. But as in World War II, they also know how to raise the patriotic mood, like this recent TV community announcement, made as a joint effort by all studios.

Hollywood public service announcement

I am freedom, and I stand tall.

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

I am the beacon that inspires hope. I embrace people of all cultures and faiths.

The natural state of mankind is freedom. 

Standing together to make a better world.

The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.

Stan Correy: Just after the September 11 attack, Hollywood became almost catatonic. Films just made were shelved; projects in the pipeline stalled, and no-one quite knew what kind of new scripts anyone would want. Washington called the Hollywood leading lights in to talk about it all, but Hollywood apparently did not want to become an international propaganda machine for Washington. Everyone says there's still a sense of unease in the Dream Factory.

One film that's been shelved for the moment is a Phil Noyce remake of Graham Green's classic novel, 'The Quiet American'. Set in Vietnam during the early 1950s, it involves the activities of a CIA agent. The anti-American tone of the Graham Greene story was toned down in the first movie, but the new Phil Noyce version made before September 11 is truer to the original story and that could be a big problem in today's climate.

Veteran Hollywood director, Sydney Pollack, owned the film rights to the novel and is one of the executive producers. He says the story is sensitive. On the phone from Hollywood, Sydney Pollack.

Sydney Pollack: An enormous part of what made them now more compelling is that it was personalised, it didn't begin so that everything in it is an examination of moral and philosophical ideas, it was an older man with his younger woman, and a younger man who fell in love with that younger woman. And that's a big part of what drove the story. It so happened that the girl was Vietnam, she was Vietnamese, and it was a little bit like Europe and America fighting over the body of this Vietnamese, which was metaphorically what was happening in the world. It started out with France, and then we took over from France in time to deal with the Vietnamese problems.

Stan Correy: People talk about the clash of civilisations between the Middle East and the West, but this was an example I suppose of a clash of cultures in Asia.

Sydney Pollack: Yes, it was masculinised and feminised. I mean the Oriental was feminised, passive, nobody asked the girl what she wanted. These two men just fought over her as though she had no say in it. In a way she was a lot stronger than either of them expected, which is just exactly what happened with Vietnam.

Stan Correy: And now the question is whether Miramax will give a release date for The Quiet American.

Sydney Pollack: No it hasn't been released yet, and I think it's going to have a difficult time, probably because the climate isn't right right now in the United States for a film that questions the moral stance of America. As always happens, it's happened in every country, when your country is threatened, you rally round it. It's not the best time to be super-critical of your own country when it's in some sort of physical crisis. This would happen in Russia, it happened in Cuba, it happened anywhere in the world. And so you know, right now may not be the best time to examine some of the culpability of Vietnam.

Stan Correy: What's the situation now in terms of how Miramax is going to promote it?

Sydney Pollack: I don't know. I mean this will be a marketing challenge to see how you would promote it. I don't really know how Miramax would promote it, I don't know what to tell them or how to guide them.

Stan Correy: The Vietnam war is synonymous with military might failing if you can't also win the hearts and minds of the people. That's why it's so important to find out what Hollywood will do about its portrayal, not only of American culture to the world, but of Middle East culture. Questions like these irritate Sydney Pollack.

Sydney Pollack: I'm answering your questions because you're concerned with it; I'm not. I couldn't function if that's what I was concerned with. Then I should be writing news stories or propaganda. I entertain people, I tell stories and I entertain people, and if I do a good job of it, sometimes along with the entertainment, there is some intelligent statement possible, or some moral high ground possible. But I don't wander around thinking about what my job is vis a vis the moral climate of the world. That would be pretentious as hell. I don't sit and have meetings with studios where they say, 'You know, we can't make this kind of movie' or 'We can't make that kind of movie'. Frankly, they're much more worried about what appeals to young people versus what appeals to old people, what can they do that's going to have a big opening weekend versus what they can do to have a smaller - they don't sit around and say What are we going to do vis a vis 9-11.

Stan Correy: Although in terms of promoting stories, I mean like The Quiet American, it is a different climate.

Sydney Pollack: Less and less different as time goes by. It was radically different the week after. Everybody jumped at it and said, 'Oh we'd better stop this movie because it's about terrorism', 'We'd better do this movie because it's about something else', and everybody had a kind of a quick, kneejerk reaction, but it's getting slowly back to - we're making movies just as badly as we made them before, we're making just as much junk as we always did, and we're also making just as much good stuff.

Stan Correy: Sydney Pollack's view that Hollywood has a short attention span is confirmed by former White House speech writer and Disney producer, Martin Kaplan.

Martin Kaplan: The first thing that most people expected to happen was the death of irony. We by the time of September 11th, had come to live in a culture in which nothing was sacred, but in the wake of September 11th, the idea was that some boundaries really do need to be drawn, that some truths are worth fighting and dying for, some enemies are worth vilifying and some heroes worth idolising and that the kind of trivialisation of culture would stop, and instead be replaced by a new sober climate. As a consequence a number of movies were at least temporarily withdrawn from release and the people who were creating the new television season began to ask whether there ought to be more wholesome drama, more family comedy and the kinds of things more suitable for a period in which the old values had returned to centre stage.

Stan Correy: The introspective mood lasted only a few months because Hollywood is uncertain about its role in the cause of American foreign policy.

Martin Kaplan: Entertainment is both more and less than people make it out to be. It's less that in the end it's only entertainment, it is for pleasure and amusement, and indeed you can enjoy all the American films that you want and still loathe the US, that's entirely possible because people can distinguish between things that give them thrills and their own political views. On the other hand, there is, I think, an impact on how people view the world politically which they take from their entertainment consumption. So as you watch a movie for pleasure, you are also in some sense absorbing the values and coming to decisions about whether or not the nation that gave rise to this product is a decent sort of place or whether it's morally corrupt. So the government would be thrilled if Hollywood promoted its own agenda. The problem is that Hollywood isn't really interested in promoting anyone's agenda, except the agenda of making money. So propaganda would be lovely from the point of view of the government, but Hollywood doesn't want to serve a propaganda purpose. They love telling great stories about a nation they love, but on the other hand, they only want to do it if they can attract audiences.

Stan Correy: Attracting audiences in America and overseas means having the right stories to tell. Hollywood may not want to do propaganda, but the War on Terrorism has affected the kind of stories that sit comfortably in the new climate of tension and cultural confusion.

Martin Kaplan: Right now it would be inappropriate to pitch a movie, or to make a movie, in which human life is not valued. The old body-count movies in which the joke was how many people could be killed by the end of the picture, and those were originally done straight and quickly became popular in parody versions, I don't think that's funny right now. People can't look at bodies falling out of windows of skyscrapers and think that there's something completely amusing about it. So I think limits of taste have been put on the kinds of stuff that can be made. I'm not sure that's so bad. Similarly there are limits on the feelings about the country. I think right now if you pitched a savage indictment of America's values such as we have seen, I mean the '70s were full of them in many more recent Oliver Stone pictures carried that kind of searing charge against America's values. I'm not sure that an executive listening to that pitch would think that anyone would want to go and see such a picture. They might not be exercising political censorship in saying, I don't want to make this picture because I don't want to run down America, all they have to do is make an estimate of what the box office has an appetite for, and I think it's a fair thing to say that the box office right now is more interested in, if not building up America then at least representing the best of us, than they are in offering a glass jaw to a world that wants to take a punch at it.

Stan Correy: Martin Kaplan, Director of the Norman Lear Center for Popular Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

At the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the heart of Hollywood, the latest blockbuster war movie called The Sum Of All Fears was premiered. Background Briefing's Hollywood reporter, Ed Rampell, went along to check out the mood of moviegoers.

Ed Rampell: Hi, what did you think of the movie?

Man: Liked it a lot.

Ed Rampell: Why?

Man: It was action-packed, a little bit of love story, it was entertaining, it was funny, a little bit.

Ed Rampell: What was your reaction to the nuclear explosion scene?

Man: Pretty intense. It was, I don't know, it was kind of scary.

Ed Rampell: How about the general audience reaction, how did the audience react in your screening?

Man: I think they were kind of in awe, they know that it's digitally animated so there's a little bit of a sigh of relief, I think, that it's not for real. But I think everybody's kind of still in the air and it's still shocking.

Woman: The only thing I would add is that I think that they may have toned the movie down in terms of death numbers and things you would normally expect to see in a film that they didn't talk about.

Ed Rampell: Do you think that's because of people's sensitivities after September 11th, they toned it down?

Woman: That was my first reaction that was probably why it was done that way.

Ed Rampell: OK guys, thanks a lot.

Stan Correy: The fascinating thing about this film is that it was originally about Middle East terrorists, but the Muslim lobby in America was so upset about the constant demonising of Arabs that it succeeded in having the baddies in the film turned into Nazis.

Man: I love all those aerial shots that they kept showing of like different cities when things are happening. And then they just show this aerial shot of Baltimore, and the explosion, not that it came out of nowhere but it was very unexpected, and what I noticed was you could hear like a pin drop inside the theatre. The mood of the theatre went just sombre, it was like really - and she was telling me, my wife, that they actually should get some editing, because they feel, the studio feels that - and I could feel it last night, that people are not - at least here in America - people are not ready for that yet. September 11 is still too, still an open wound.

Woman: It's still raw. It's scary, you're not the same; I haven't been the same. I mean people make me nervous I'm sorry to say, see people with turbans and I kind of look at them and all my friends do the same. Hey we never did that before.

Man: We feel vulnerable in this country now.

Sum Of All Fears Trailer

Where's the President now?

They're taking him airborne, they think it might be the Russians.

It wasn't the Russians.

Morgan Freeman: An answer, you just don't like what it adds up to.

If you strike against the Russians you sacrifice your moral authority. 

We have reason to believe the bomb was the work of terrorists, and not the Russians.

Stan Correy: In the film, the terrorists have a nuclear bomb, which they have managed to get inside America. During the week the movie was released there were press reports, not substantiated, of a real, Arab terrorist plot to explode a real dirty nuclear bomb in an American city.

An Arab actor working inside Hollywood, Sayyed Badreya, says no film putting Arabs in a good light will happen until the Middle Eastern community living in the west itself puts up the money. Badreya has made a living playing bad Arabs in Hollywood movies, and spoke to Ed Rampell about it at his home in Santa Monica.

Sayyed Badreya: I challenge the people who has money in the Arab country, or outside the Arab country who are rich Arab, to put their money where their heart is.

Ed Rampell: And where their mouth is?

Sayyed Badreya: Absolutely. If you want to do something, do it right. I see every day the Arab TV and the Arab media, and I don't think it's understand America as equal, as American TV and media doesn't understand the Arab country. We have to tell our story, ourself I think, lot of the Arabic kids who are in foreign country should go to cinema and study cinema and tell their story because the change will come from outside the Arab country, to tell the story of the Arab country. The Arab country have not tell their story the right way because they are controlled by dictator, the voices is not there, but I think as an Arab American or Arab Australian or Arab Canadian or Arab from England, will have the freedom to tell his story.

Stan Correy: Sayyed Badreya has made a movie himself. It's a movie about making a movie called Felafel City. In the film, a director who wants to make a film about good Arabs can't get backing, so he hijacks a whole studio. It's a comedy, with political overtones, but no-one wants to screen it.

Another well-connected and highly regarded director is Lebanese film maker Ziad Doueiri. Doueiri has been trying to get up a film about the Arab-Israeli conflict. His French producers are Jewish and he's had interest from Hollywood producers. And then:

Ziad Doueiri: I was sitting in Beirut about 9am doing some small rewrites when I saw on TV the September bombing, and I just look at a couple of friends. It's funny how it came to me so quickly, within five minutes, it sounds insensitive but somehow I thought about it. I thought, this film which is called Man in the Middle, I thought Man in the Middle is going to be shelved, because this thing is so disastrous, who would want right now to make a film about the Middle East, especially that the film, even though it's pretty objective in a lot of ways, it's definitely not slogan or the typical words you hear from an Arab population, which is sometimes pathetic , it's not like that. But even though I felt no matter objective I was, it's still going to be considered slightly showing the Palestinian perspective . Without being sloganish at all, and I thought at that time I doubt anybody cares. So I put this screenplay on the shelf, and I called my producers who shared the same opinion with me. But they said look, don't feel depressed, it's a temporary thing, just put it off and start a new project.

Stan Correy: On the phone from Hollywood talking about his experience, Ziad Doueiri.

Explaining the Middle East to the West is always difficult and controversial, but explaining the West to the East is just as problematic. The experience of 1950s America for a young Egyptian writer was to turn out more significant than anyone realised at the time.

Song: 'Baby It's Cold Outside'

Stan Correy: Using the principles of six degrees of separation, it can be argued that that song is responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center last September. It goes something like this: In the late 1940s, there was a brilliant young intellectual in the Egyptian Ministry of Education called Sayyid Qutb.

It was a time of great controversy, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the rise of anti-colonial movements.

Qutb wanted an independent Egypt, free of Western influence, but the corrupt Egyptian monarchy thought they could tame Qutb's growing radicalism. He was sent to America to see for himself that the country was not the root of all evil. The plan had the exact opposite effect, and drawing a long bow, this may go down as one of the most disastrous re-education projects in modern history.

Malise Ruthven: He spent six months in a place called Greeley, Colorado, at the University of Colorado Center for Higher Education, and they were treated well by the people there, and he was obviously rather lonely. So he joined a church group, he didn't say which one, attended some of their social functions, and was absolutely horrified to find that the pastor of the church was hosting an evening of teenagers. You know, this is the 1950s when everyone wore white socks and midi-length skirts. And probably things by today's standards, would be pretty decorous. But you know, the lights were dimmed and they danced to a big band tune which was very popular at that time, 'Baby It's Cold Outside' and just this interaction and intimacy between the sexes was something that filled him disdain and horror.

Now I think that kind of feeling does resonate and part of their hostility towards Western culture is due to the fact that of course Western culture has become very, very pervasive, and you get Madonna, you get Michael Jackson on satellite programs all over the world courtesy of one of your great Australians, Rupert Murdoch, and this kind of, if you like, cultural dissemination is very disturbing to a lot of people. The trouble is, they can't really keep it out. I mean attempts by the Islamists and some governments to suppress dishes, to ban dishes, have on the whole, not worked because dishes get smaller and smaller, and people put them on the roofs of their houses and Islamic societies value privacy very much, so it's difficult to get the kind of thought police going into people's homes and looking for dishes and so forth. And there is a huge kind of cultural conflict taking place, and it's not a conflict as Samuel Huntingdon argued, between civilisations, it's much a more conflict that's happening within families. And even you could say within individuals.

Stan Correy: The experience of America in the 1950s was for Qutb, very confronting.

When he went back to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and helped in the overthrow of the monarchy. Qutb wrote about his experiences in America.

Humanity today is living in a large brothel. One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars and broadcasting stations. Or to observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts and the mass media.

Stan Correy: Eventually, Abdul Nasser, who was a secular nationalist, threw Qutb in jail for his extremist activities, and had him hanged for crimes against the State. But in prison, Qutb had time to write a book called 'Signposts On The Road', and this book has become the most influential tract used by Islamic fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden today.

Highlighting the moral corruption of American popular culture is common in many articles published in Arabic and Islamic newspapers and broadcast on the media.

Here's an example from last month from Al Qa'ida spokesman Sulamein Abu Ghaith

America, with the collaboration of the Jews, is the leader of corruption and the breakdown of values, whether moral, ideological, political or economic corruption, it disseminates abomination and licentiousness among the people via the cheap media and the vile curricula.

Stan Correy: It's an irony that American soft power protagonists are wanting to target Middle Eastern youth with American pop culture today. Speaking in Washington, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Charlotte Beers.

Charlotte Beers: We really must enlarge our communication with the mainstream of young adults. Significantly in the Middle East and South and South-East Asia, and even those young adults outside of cities. We have to meet this expanded audience as in fact you said, Chairman Biden, on their terms and in their own channels of distribution. So what about those who are even younger and under 20? I think we must develop plans and resources and teams, to seek the help of the huge multinational companies and also the foreign students from the US universities, to activate them, to talk about our common values and to demonstrate that democratisation in some form can answer that final question, What's in it for me?

Stan Correy: Whether democracy 'in some form' will be allowed into the Middle East to deliver the promises of Charlotte's American Room remains to be seen. One of the main obstacles is that the US is trying to sell political values without giving anything politically real. At the moment, the biggest issue is Palestine.

Rosaleen Smyth is an Australian expert on public diplomacy currently teaching in Dubai. She told me that while many of her students want to study in America and are interested in Western popular culture, at the same time they're organising campus demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, and are critical of US policy in the region.

Nevertheless, the propaganda machine keeps trying. The Bush Administration is focusing its public diplomacy efforts on targeting disaffected youth in the Arab and Muslim world. In the works is a 24-hour satellite TV channel in Arabic, and there's already a US-funded Arabic radio station.

Radio Sawa: Cher singing

Stan Correy: Sawa is Arabic for 'together'. And the station plays a mix of Western and Arabic pop music. And every half-hour a very snappy news bulletin with the latest pronouncements on the Middle East from Washington.

George Bush: When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbours, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian State.

Stan Correy: The man responsible for Radio Sawa is Norm Pattiz. He's also trying to convince Washington to put up the money for a US TV network to rival the influence of Al Jazeera based in Qatar. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Norm Pattiz.

Norm Pattiz: We have the examples of the Secretary of State having his comments aired on Al Jazeera, immediately followed by people who tear apart everything he just said. We need to control what the programming is before the next program and after the next program. We need to create, in television there's a concept called audience flow, which is, even though it's a medium of programs that are not necessarily the same from hour to hour, the television tries to appeal to a particular audience and then carry that audience through. For instance, you start your morning show, I mean if we were going to do something and believe me this is right off the top of my head, if we were going to do a project like this, we would put together a blue-ribbon panel of advisors, many of whom I have informally talked with about this already, the heads of major communications companies, television networks and movie studios, to act as advisors who I believe would be very helpful, at least in terms of the entertainment programming, in providing programming for us in a way that would show their patriotism.

Stan Correy: The Chief Executive of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is writer and producer, Bryce Zabel. Zabel was one of the Hollywood industry leaders who met with the White House soon after September 11.

Bryce Zabel: Americans know a lot about who Americans are, but apparently the rest of the world doesn't know a very accurate picture of what America is about, or else we wouldn't have this severe hatred, because America has done a number of great things to help the rest of the world over the years, even though no country is perfect, this country means well and is attempting to be engaged in a positive way to benefit the rest of the world. So the intense hatred and misunderstanding in some parts of the world, notably in the Middle East, seems unwarranted. There's a phrase that I've heard before which is, 'If enough people tell you you're drunk, sit down', which means you have to hear what the other person is saying to you. Now if the rest of the world doesn't see the world the way we do, it may very well be that we need to do a better job of not communicating at home, but communicating with the rest of the world. And I'm in favour of that. I think that communication and globalisation of the media is one of those things that may in fact end up saving the world, by having us focus on the things that we agree upon as opposed to the hatreds of the past.

Stan Correy: How you get rid of the 'hatreds of the past' by bombarding the Arab mind with multiple broadcasting channels, full of Western pop culture, will be tested in the coming months as the Middle East broadcasting market really gets overheated. There are already around 140 TV channels broadcasting in the region. The Israelis have just set up an Arabic TV channel. The Americans are planning their satellite service.

Mark Leonard is Director of the Foreign Policy Centre in London. He's just completed a report on the role of public diplomacy in resolving conflict.

The problem for the Americans, says Leonard, is that the attraction of their cultural power is undermined by their military strength.

Mark Leonard: There's a danger of the attempts at public primacy being undermined and undercut by American foreign policy positions, because it's difficult to build relationships with people if you put American interests first every single time. It's difficult to try and defeat censorship in the Arab and Muslim world, if The Voice of America simply reflects the official position of the government, rather than reflecting sort of editorial independence. So I think there is a potential contradiction there, and that's why I've argued very strongly in this report that other Western nations, maybe particularly European nations, can play an enormous role in this because we don't have the same sort of tendency to use public diplomacy as a tool of power projection. You look at the BBC's international radio service, it's not called The Voice of Britain, it's called The World Service. If you look at the tools used in the rhetoric behind the Goethe Institut, the German government's cultural relations institute, it's all about mutuality, it's about sharing, it's not about acting as a conveyor belt for the German values. And I think that what we need to do is move out of this sort of mindset of propaganda of one-way flows and actually start building relationships, and it's going to take a long time to establish levels of trust, but the BBC World Service which has been broadcasting in Pashtu for over 20 years now, has got to a position where people trust it a lot more, and people have got used to using it.

I think that unless people get a sense that you care about them as individuals, rather than just as potential terrorists, and that you're not just talking to them because you don't want them to turn to violence, I don't think it's going to be possible to build the sorts of relationships which are needed.

Stan Correy: Mark Leonard, of the Foreign Policy Centre.

In Washington DC, the debate about the credibility of US public diplomacy has intensified.

Franklin Foer, of the New Republic, says the work of foreign policy spin doctors like John Rendon and Charlotte Beers may be doing more harm than good to the US cause.

Franklin Foer: The problem is that the United States can achieve this global, cultural hegemony, yet it doesn't translate into the triumph of American ideas, and there's some sort of disconnect there. And a lot of people have thought very hard about this. And the question is, do the prominence of American advertising in media and culture abroad spur some sort of resentment of the United States, so that the work of people like Beers and Rendon will inevitably backfire? I'm not sure, but it seems to me like part of the problem is that the ideas conveyed and the images conveyed through advertising and through movies and through television, most of the time are incredibly superficial; they're not going to persuade anyone of the superiority of the American system or the American way of life, and it seems to me a lot of the techniques that the United States government is employing through people like Rendon and Beers are somewhat either anti-intellectual, or a-intellectual, there's not a whole lot of substance at the core of them.

Stan Correy: Hazem Saghieyeh believes unless there's more substance to political and diplomatic campaigns in the Middle East, the future is bleak.

Hazem Saghieyeh: I can't see really any reason for hope unfortunately. Neither in the Moslem and Arab world, nor in the way the West and mainly the United States are responding nowadays to the challenges. I mean this combination between three fundamentalisms, the security fundamentalism, religion fundamentalism, and market fundamentalism, and three of them are over-represented in the White House nowadays. It's not a good sign at all, it's not promising.

On the other hand, the Arab world is living one of its darkest eras in its history, and I don't think desperation, poverty, fanaticism would produce anything which is good and bright.

Stan Correy: Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness. Technical production, David Bates. Research, Paul Bolger. Hollywood interviews, Ed Rampell. Our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I'm Stan Correy and you're with ABC Radio National.