KENNETH TOMLINSON: I think it's important for us to realize that we're in this for the long haul…
BOB GARFIELD: Kenneth Tomlinson is the chairman of the Broadcast Board of Governors, the agency behind Alhurra and other public diplomacy efforts around the world.
MAN: We're in this to spread freedom and democracy, women's rights, economic opportunity around the world, and we cannot seek to gauge from month to month or even year to year how successful we are, so long as our broadcasts are providing basic news and information to people who need it.
BOB GARFIELD: If Congress approves the president's supplemental spending request, the board will soon expand its Persian language satellite transmission from a half hour a day to one hour, repeated four times a day, giving Iranians, he hopes, a bigger window to the West.
KENNETH TOMLINSON: Iran is an information-deprived society. People of Iran do have access to any number of broadcasts from abroad. There are private broadcasters, broadcasting in a version of Farsi, but the only way people have, in Iran, of following the important events in Lebanon to date is through Western broadcasts. They certainly don't get it from inside Iran.
BOB GARFIELD: Is that all there is - basic news and information - or is there some propaganda afoot?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: No propaganda. News and information, plus debates. You have to realize that in large portions of the world, people have never heard the principle of women's rights defined. People don't understand the important advantages in our general free economic system. The right of the free press is not observed. So when we even have debates, where one side is putting forth these principles and the other side is putting forth the forces of darkness, we win, because people for the first time hear our side.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you combat the intense suspicion surrounding anything the United States does in the Middle East?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: You see, I go back to the days of the Cold War, and I know the effect broadcasting had on the people of the former Soviet Union and the people of Eastern Europe. I know the power of information, the power of truth. I saw a revolution, in the former Soviet Union. I saw the Berlin Wall come down, in no small part because of the role that the radios played in giving people the information they needed to make up their own minds. 24/7 broadcasts to the Arab world on Alhurra, our significant increase in satellite television to Iran - these are aimed at allowing people their right to know.
NANCY SNOW: It's really apples and oranges.
BOB GARFIELD: Former State Department Communications Specialist Nancy Snow is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy.
NANCY SNOW: I think we can learn a lot from our history and the effectiveness that VOA had, but we're living in a very different time, and the audience is more sophisticated, but they're also much more skeptical. We need to recognize that the United States is seen in many parts of the world as really the number one propaganda nation in terms of our legacy of broadcasting, public relations, advertising and marketing - these persuasion industries.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, there's two ways to look at this sort of propaganda. One is that the United States is just so ham-fisted in its efforts that all over the Middle East, and now Iran, people are rolling their eyes at the clumsiness of our approach, and the other is that we are so ultra-sophisticated that we are wizards, penetrating people's minds and changing their point of view with them scarcely realizing what's afoot. Does either of those scenarios reflect reality?
NANCY SNOW: Not quite. I think that we are sophisticated with the technology, but we still have a lot to learn in terms of the effects of what we're doing. What we know from research is that you can produce some shift in attitudes, but you rarely produce a total conversion.
BOB GARFIELD: You've said, about a Farsi language satellite service that, quote, "People could see it as a sign that an invasion is coming. It's the sort of thing that happens before nations build up their war effort." Now there has been some saber rattling with respect to Iran over the nuclear issue. In the past, has the Voice of America and similar efforts been the electronic equivalent of dropping leaflets by air over a town to say "Clear out?"
NANCY SNOW: Not necessarily Voice of America broadcasting in general. We saw it with the war in Iraq, taking out the information infrastructure, the so-called Saddam TV, and this is an ongoing debate. Is that really part of making war against another country? Do you first take out the ability of the enemy population to be targeted by its own media? And I think that in some circles, it is a legitimate target, in terms of information warfare. So, I'm just saying that, to some, it could be seen that the more that the United States uses broadcasting to Iran, that it could be interpreted that that is just priming that population for an invasion that was, of course, a very provocative statement from an American. But, I think internally, that wouldn't really be seen as too far out there.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Nancy, thanks very much.
NANCY SNOW: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Propaganda expert Nancy Snow is an assistant professor of communications at Cal State, Fullerton, and a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy. We also heard from Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcast Board of Governors, and to begin the segment, Hisham Melham of Al-Arabiya TV. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the evolution of Washington journalism and a White House spokesman actually answers questions. This is On the Media, from NPR.