Saturday, January 22, 2011

VOA's "Parazit": The Debate

I'm very glad to see several great comments to my previous post on the "Parazit" show on VOA Persian. Seems like it did do its job of starting a debate, and I'm very grateful to those who shared their thoughts, since I'm really trying to figure it out for myself. As I started writing my own "response" comment, I realized it's too long, so just decided to have it as a separate post. Would be great to get more insights/ideas!

(Indeed, the "Jon Stewart Effect" seems to have kicked in, increasing attention and awareness: the story has gone viral, now. Smart move, VOA!)


Thanks so much – to all of you – for the insights! It’s truly great to get not only the professional perspective on this, but also the Iranian-American and (I presume) an actual Iranian one. Indeed, long live social media! :-)

Now, regarding the questions you brought up. I do agree that VOA has become largely boring and obsolete lately. However, I would also argue that it’s just the perspective of the people in the U.S. (of whatever descent). Although I’m ambivalent about it’s effectiveness, I would still emphasize that on many occasions VOA (as well as BBC Farsi) are among the only alternative sources of mass info in Iran, except for that provided by the state, right? (And here I’m talking about the majority who does not have access to high-speed Internet.)

Of course, I’m not familiar with the VOA Persian content; and yet, I know their Russian and Armenian pretty well (and of course, there’s always the main English-language one), and obviously – on most occasions – they’re very careful to be as “objective” as possible (as neutral as the term “objective” can ever get, that is). I presume it's safe to assume that it is true for the Persian service, too, then.

Courtesy of IventorSpot.

What concerns me in this case, however (and this also addresses Laura’s point), is that “Parazit” – despite being very engaging, and very legitimate from the American perspective – is, in many ways, also a deliberate attempt to either change or reinforce certain opinions among a foreign audience from, what is now, an American source. (And yes, I do accept the point re: that they went to VOA for certain reasons. Yet, they have become a part of the VOA and are, thus, a statement from the American government/people.)

Again, I do not mean to say that I don’t like the idea, and I’m certainly NOT arguing that the VOA should stop it. That’s not the point. (Actually, I rather like this guerilla attempt to raise more awareness about VOA among the American public!) What I’m trying to figure out (for myself, first and foremost), and to bring up for discussion, however, is whether it would correspond to the definition of propaganda more than to the definition of public diplomacy (and no, I’m not asking anyone to admit that to me, officially or publicly. Let’s just say, it's “pure academic curiosity”!).

To quote something I read for class earlier this week:

T. Qualter (1962): “[Propaganda is] the deliberate attempt […] to form, control, or alter the attitudes of other groups by the use of the instruments of communication, with the intention that […] the reaction […] will be that desired by the propagandist.”
J.C. Merrill and R. Lowenstein (1971): Propaganda involves “manipulation,” “purposeful management,” “preconceived plan,” “creation of desires,” “reinforcement of biases,” “arousal of preexisting attitudes,” “irrational appeal,” “specific objective,” “arousal to action,” “predetermined end,” “suggestion,” and “creation of dispositions."

This is also what I was referring to, when I mentioned “emotional appeal.” I don’t mean to say that the majority of the Iranian population is misinformed, has no idea what’s going on, or is not aware of their “surroundings”. However, one cannot deny the fact that the necessary “tipping point” was not there in 2009…

Such programming can, indeed, help bring that about. Yet, something also tells me that “Parazit” might be more popular (especially in terms of overall percentages) among the Iranian-American population, than with the Iranians themselves. And the comment from Hasan is just one example to illustrate that. After all, don’t forget the pervasiveness of selective perception!

Which also brings me to another point Laura brought up: yes, this show can help cast the information in new light. Yet, because of all the censorship, the lack of reliable info in the country, as well as political disillusionment, there’s also the risk that many inside Iran might actually come to “over-rely” on Western sources for their information – i.e. take it at face value and go with it, as some sort of a protest against their own regime. Political satire – being the “subconscious influencer” that it is – becomes even more dangerous in this sense, especially given the historical and political context (that is, if we all agree that purposeful perception management and mind control are dangerous). So again, I would love to hear what you think about it!

I also very much like the point Hasan brought up. Indeed, in “official” lingo, especially recently, public diplomacy is all about “understanding” and "two-way cultural communication". Yet, there’s always – inevitably – much more to that, and in my opinion, "Parazit" is a great illustration of that.


  1. dear Yelena,
    I am happy that there are still brave persons in us who are really free thinkers.As you know one of the most important rules in public diplomacy is listening and respecting mutually not just criticizing in a one way. I would be delighted if you could help me to study PD in us.
    sincerely yours,

  2. I do agree with your point regarding listening, mutual respect, and understanding. It seems somewhat impossible, however, when PD is conceptualized in terms of "security" and "interests". Yet, the paradox is - there would be no money/support for PD if it didn't involve these... Finding the balance is - obviously - very difficult.

    I'm afraid I don't have the ability to help you with getting into a school, Hasan.. Why don't you try and look into the requirements of various programs - seems like you know USC? I would certainly suggest looking at SIS (American University) and some other schools in the DC area, too (GW, GU.. maybe even Syracuse - they have a PD program, too). You should hurry with the applications, though - deadlines might already have passed.