BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Amid reports of escalating hostility towards the United States around the Arab world, the State Department continues to mount new offensives in its "hearts and minds" campaign. One of the latest is "Hi," as in H I, magazine, which hit news racks across the Middle East in July. Unapologetically youth and lifestyle-oriented, the oversized Arab language glossy has featured such topics as sand-boarding, low carb diets and the mainstreaming of Arab music in America. Politics and policy are not on the agenda. But according to Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report, this decidedly apolitical approach itself makes Hi Magazine a very political statement.
CHRIS TOENSING: It's ignoring the 600 pound elephant in the room. It's ignoring the one thing on which there needs to be genuine dialogue between Arabs and Americans, and so to explicitly ignore that in this magazine is a form of condescension. It's saying to Arabs that we're not going to be convinced by anything you have to say in this dialogue anyway, so why should we bother to have the dialogue.
BOB GARFIELD:Under the rubric there's a time and a place for everything, let's stipulate that this is a sort of soft core propaganda and the whole object is to win the hearts and minds of young people in the Arab world. Is it not a legitimate path to sort of soften the audience for a harder political message that comes in other venues by just making the Arab world more comfortable with everything else that America is about? Why is that so wrong?
CHRIS TOENSING: It's not so much that it's wrong. It's just that it's already happening. Arab youth are very exposed to American popular culture and American lifestyles through their own Arabic language media, through the availability of English language satellite TV channels in the Arab world, through the availability of English language publications in the Middle East. Hi Magazine is not completely filling a vacuum. There's one more point which is that clearly the magazine, by virtue of its price and by virtue of the topics it covers, is oriented at a fairly elite audience in the Arab world, and these are precisely the people who are likely to have relatives who live in the United States or Europe and likely to travel here, and so they have direct exposure to American lifestyles and culture, and they don't need to read about it in a magazine.
BOB GARFIELD:Now, clearly you take issue conceptually with this project, but you also have issues executionally. You just don't think it's a very good magazine. Give me some for instances.
CHRIS TOENSING: Well, some of the coverage of interactions between Arab and American culture leaves out some very crucial points that Arab audiences are actually likely to know about. One example of that is the article on the influence of Arab music on western musicians such as Sting and Lenny Kravitz. Lenny Kravitz recorded a song with the Iraqi singer Kazem Al Sahir which was called We Want Peace. Now this song came out on the verge of the Iraq war, so it was explicitly timed in order to make an anti-war comment, and that context is completely missing from the Hi article.
BOB GARFIELD: So add to the bill of indictment intellectual dishonesty. You've read all four issues.
CHRIS TOENSING: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD:Have you noticed any evolution of the editorial product? Is it making any attempts to address the criticisms that you're raising.
CHRIS TOENSING: I have to be fair here. In the first issue there was an article who profiled a number of Arab students who are studying at U.S. universities and essentially presented their lives as problem-free and completely left out the hugest problem that Arab students who want to study in the United States face today, which is the great difficulty of securing a student visa, and of course these difficulties have increased dramatically since the September 11th attacks. I think they must have received a lot of questions about that article, because in the October issue they do run a fairly long feature about precisely the process of applying to U.S. universities, and they don't whitewash how difficult that is, and they also do tell a couple of stories of Arab students who threw up their hands in frustration and ultimately decided not to study in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Well that sounds suspiciously like journalism.
CHRIS TOENSING:It does. And I would really hope that the magazine continues to move in that direction. That is ultimately what might distinguish it from the state-run media and the Arab world which does not engage in much serious investigative journalism, and if that's what Hi Magazine wants to do, then I would applaud it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Chris, thank you very much.
CHRIS TOENSING: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:Chris Toensing is the editor Middle East Report, and he joined us from Washington, DC. Richard Creighton is executive editor of Hi Magazine and founder of the Magazine Group, publisher of Hi. The Magazine Group clients list includes corporations and large non-profits like the American Diabetes Association and the Folk Art Museum in New York. But Hi is Creighton's first government project, and he says that while Hi is not perfect, it is having an impact.
RICHARD CREIGHTON: What we have done is assemble a group of talented Arab journalists from a number of different Middle Eastern countries. We have an editor from Libya, from Syria, from Jordan, from Morocco, from Lebanon. We've created a web site, and we are with every article posing questions to the Middle East. We're inviting questions, and without any public relations effort and no marketing to date, and with distribution not even in all of the countries where ultimately it will go, we're getting 500,000 hits a month, we're getting 20,000 unique visitors. We're getting responses from Syria, from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq, and the magazine's not yet available in those countries. And so we're encouraged by that and, and feel that we're trying to start a dialogue and we have indications that in some ways that's starting.
BOB GARFIELD:Toensing brought up the reference to Lenny Kravitz and how editorially you took it out of context by not referencing the lyrics as explicitly anti-war. Were you playing fast and loose with reality there?
RICHARD CREIGHTON: Not at all. I think that while I can respect Toensing's position, the only thing that he's seeing about it is the political aspect of it, and what we're focused on here is that Lenny Kravitz is collaborating with people, and that, and that's one part of this article where the rest of it's talking about Arab music and the influence that it's having on music generally in the United States. And you know, so there's collaboration which I think is a good message, and there's the fact that Arab music is permeating our music, and that's what the article's about and, and there's nothing wrong with talking about that.
BOB GARFIELD:Well here's an analogy for you. You know, you're familiar with the dynamic of the public schools which are so cowed by the separation of church and state that they won't even discuss religion or major religious holidays in class for fear of somehow violating the Constitution. Are you so sensitive about veering into political questions that you go overboard in, in distancing yourself from just reality?
RICHARD CREIGHTON: I think there are so many publications here and in the Middle East that focus exclusively on policy and that that has an important place in our lives, but in the process maybe we overlook a little bit the importance of communicating on a cultural level. Maybe that lays the groundwork for talking about things that might be more controversial or more different.
BOB GARFIELD:Because your magazine actually costs money, it's almost by definition appealing to a, an economic elite. In some sense, are you speaking to the converted? People who already are well-acquainted with American culture from many other sources including Hollywood and really don't need necessarily to get that update on snowboarding?
RICHARD CREIGHTON: Well you know, sn-- [LAUGHS] First of all--
BOB GARFIELD: That's a snarky way to ask the question. [LAUGHTER] Wasn't it?
RICHARD CREIGHTON: But what's, I think what's important to keep in mind is that we're trying to talk to 20 to 30 year olds and, and so-- yes, there is a snowboarding piece. That's a little attention-grabber. It's a commercial attempt to get people to pick up the magazine, but then once you get past the snowboarding article, there is an article about water rights and how we deal with conflicts over water rights in the West, and we'll follow a, a young person who's actually running for political office in the Midwest. And so there's much more to it than that, and this magazine, it ranges in price from 70 cents I think to a dollar 75 or something in that range, and it is priced competitively with hundreds of other magazines that are on newstands in the Middle East. And in addition to that, there is a web site, so it doesn't cost anything to see this magazine.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Richard Creighton, thank you very much.
RICHARD CREIGHTON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Creighton is a principal in the Magazine Group in Washington, DC and the executive editor of Hi Magazine. [MUSIC]