BOB GARFIELD: Pakistan has experienced a media boom in recent years, moving from one state-owned TV station in 2002 to more than 90 private channels today. But an increase in news doesn't always result in a better-informed public. The Washington Post recently reported that for the past eight months, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan has embarked on a different kind of hearts-and-minds campaign. It’s actively trying to correct the record set by the inflammatory and, according to the Embassy, outright false claims made in the Pakistani press. Larry Schwartz is the senior spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Larry, welcome to the show.
LARRY SCHWARTZ: Thanks, great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Pakistan was a breed apart for you, eh?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: It’s true. I've been doing this for about 27 years, and I've just never been in any place where I had to face such a consistent onslaught of direct falseness about the United States in the media. It makes it very hard for all parties concerned, including the public, to know who their friends are.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when I read the story in The Post, my main reaction was, like, duh. I've been reading for years and years and years about the rumor mill in the Arab press and the crazy conspiracy theories whenever anything happens in the world, the mischief often attributed to the United States. If you complained to your colleagues, you know, let's just say in uh, Egypt, do you think they'd just roll their eyes and say, yeah, take a number?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: I've served in the Middle East myself. I've served in Africa, in Asia and other places. I'm not crying for mercy here. It was actually something that Ambassador Holbrooke and Undersecretary of State Judith McHale conceived when they came out here last August. They really wanted to see a very vigorous pushback. It’s very important if we are to have the kind of relationship we'd like to have with Pakistan, and we're to see Pakistan become the kind of country that it could be, that they have people telling them the truth about their relationship with the United States and America’s intentions in the region.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me an example, please, of a story that was printed or aired that was just so outrageously false that you felt that you had to respond.
LARRY SCHWARTZ: Allegations that the United States was involved in a conspiracy to murder Benazir Bhutto, that every American diplomat in the city is, is a secret paramilitary combatant attached to Blackwater. There are regular reports that our aircraft cross over into Pakistani airspace, which we have to deny. There are pictures of our homes sometimes put in newspapers as Blackwater agent homes.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you do to try to counter the false report?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: We are now in dialog with the major newspapers, the major editors, the leading television stations. And they know that they're going to hear from us when they really tell a whopper. They do this in Cairo, they do this in Paris, they do this everywhere, really, but nowhere do they have to do it as regularly as they do here in Pakistan. We've definitely felt a reduction in the sheer number and volume of outright vicious attacks by uninformed media. That doesn't mean that it’s gone away entirely. But those who are well intended are beginning to see a relationship that’s important and different, rather than one that they saw in almost transactional terms not long ago.
BOB GARFIELD: I, I have to ask you this: You were mentioning the lie that American aircraft are flying into Pakistani airspace. Now, it is the biggest open secret in the world that the CIA is sending Predator drones into Waziristan to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda there. Are you suggesting that the U.S. is not a part of those drone attacks?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: I'm saying nothing at all. I had no – I was talking about F-16 airplanes. Spokesmen around the world also do another thing when asked to talk about intelligence matters. We decline to do so, and, and I do too.
BOB GARFIELD: The U.S. does not have the best track record of telling the truth in Pakistan and elsewhere. It’s one thing to respond to a lie with the facts, but do you find that your facts are dismissed with rolling eyes because they come from you?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: I've been defending America’s foreign policy straight, you know, since 1983. You can imagine the changes that I've been through and the things that I've had to speak. You know, American diplomats always explain and defend America’s foreign policy abroad, but the good news about American diplomats is we're allowed to admit that there are Americans who see things differently.
BOB GARFIELD: You can imagine, you just said, the things you've had to say. Would you care to amplify?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: [LAUGHS] I actually wouldn't. But I think that you know the many twists and turns of our foreign policy over the years.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s your biggest success been?
LARRY SCHWARTZ: The sheer volume of anti-American, non-fact-based attacks on the United States has dropped as our engagement has expanded. This is precisely what we would have hoped. Some might call it a freezing effect.
BOB GARFIELD: Chilling effect, yeah. Intimidation.
LARRY SCHWARTZ: I'm not interested in intimidating anybody, and besides, I haven't got that authority here as a guest in this country. My job is to make the case for U.S. foreign policy, to support a closer relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and to build a future of our two countries together in favor of a region that finds peace and development rather than instability, where extremists can continue to do their malevolent work.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much.
LARRY SCHWARTZ: Sure. Thanks very much to you guys, too.
BOB GARFIELD: Larry Schwartz is the senior spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.