Friday, January 21, 2011

VOA's "Parazit": PD or Propaganda?

As we started the new class on Public Diplomacy this semester, the first couple of sessions and readings were  - of course - devoted to the discussion of the (hard-to-define and often ambiguous) differences between "propaganda" and "public diplomacy". I won't be reproducing the entire discussion here. Instead, I wanted to raise the question (and hope to get insights from the readers of this blog): which category would this Voice of America program belong to?

Courtesy of The Washington Post, December 31, 2010

I never watch or follow VOA Persian (primarily due to my non-existent Farsi skills), and I heard about Parazit only recently. Yet, it seems to have gotten quite a lot of attention from mainstream American media lately, so much so that Jon Stewart himself ("the Prophet" of satire, as Parazit's creators called him!) hosted them at his Daily Show last night.

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There's no denying, political humor and satire is a whole different animal. The case of Iran itself, however, is very... difficult, for the lack of a better word. The limitations on freedoms and the strict regulation of speech make the production of such programming within Iran practically impossible. So yes, in that sense VOA Persian is "breaking" taboos and raising legitimate questions.

But the way it is done, the language and symbolism used, as well as its method - the appeal to emotions and indirect influence through humor - seem controversial to me. Moreover, one should not forget the fact that this is a part of a country's international broadcasting, paid for by American taxpayers and targeting the public of the very same government the show so vehemently attacks.

That is why, as much as I appreciate VOA's work in bringing uncensored and more objective information to the Iranian people, I'm finding it hard to define such programming in any terms that do not involve references to propaganda, in some shape or form. After all, the difference between propaganda and public diplomacy is based on the "element of morality" and, more importantly, on one's perspective. The former aims to tell people what to think, while the latter supposedly informs, raises questions, and suggests what the audience should think about.

So, what do you think?


UPDATE [1/22/2011; 4:45PM]: Here's another segment from CNN that I came across. It dates back to January 13. Yet, it seems like the show needed the "Jon Stewart factor" to gain its current prominence in America. How ironic!


  1. What would you consider Baywatch? Propaganda? Come on, people around the world want to be entertained. If VOA does it for an audience in Iran, so much the better, especially with a product that can't be produced domestically. If it provokes people to think, fine. But are you suggesting the show is somehow overly provocative when funded by a government and is trying to tell them what to think? Hardly. The audience already is sympathetic. Which brings me back to asking, what if VOA ran Baywatch re-runs?

  2. Will be honest - never seen Baywatch, so pardon my ignorance if I'm missing something. To best of my knowledge, however, it's nothing political and its primary audience was domestic: it was produced for Americans, first and foremost. And yes, to the best of my knowledge, it was not funded by the government to achieve a certain objective in terms of changing/influencing public opinion...

    In this case, it's officially-funded/supported by the US, in Farsi, with the Iranian public in mind. That is why I'm suggesting that it's bordering (if not equal to) propaganda.

    And yet, I'm afraid I really don't see why Baywatch is a good example for comparison, here. Might be missing a specific reference... Would appreciate clarification.

  3. Get out of my head! We've been blogging in tandem the past few days... :-)

    Two comments: First, I actually *have* seen Baywatch (albeit in Czech) and while the language divide did prevent me from fully appreciating the nuances of the dialogue, I can confirm that it is no more political than a Speedo advertisement.

    Second, I'm not sure I see much use in clarifying whether it's public diplomacy or propaganda. Both terms are burdened with too many definitions and too may connotations for a differentiation to be truly possible. For me, the question becomes: What is its objective and who is its audience? The program is meant to be satirical, not straightforward, and I think it's a bold and strategic step by VOA. In other words, I dig it.

  4. Thank you, Laura!!! At least don't feel as bad anymore about "missing" Baywatch :-)

    Now - I never said I don't like "Parazit"! I think it's a great idea... and yet, won't stop me from questioning it's "purpose". Just as you said, the questions are what's the objective and who's the audience? Such humor and satire - even in a domestic context - can serve the purpose of persuasion and "influence" (if interested, I suggest you take a look at this piece: In this case, even the producers/hosts don't deny that...

    And yeah, you didn't answer your own questions...! :-)

  5. You raise some interesting questions, Lena, but I think they're a bit of a contrarian stretch.

    Parazit isn't really a show from the VOA. It's a program completely conceived by the creative and nonpartisan minds of Saman Darabi and Kambiz Hosseini, who then turned to VOA as an outlet because of their financial/technical resources. Neither individuals are beltway lackeys.

    VOA Persian has traditionally been known by our Iranian diaspora as a boring, low-fi, uninspiring media service. The opposite of BBC Farsi. You couldn't really call it "propaganda" when it was so dull, harmless and benign to begin with.

    If you talk to any execs at VOA, this show has completely taken them off guard. Some didn't even know the show existed, since VOA Persian is run as a separate entity and because no one really pays attention to the VOA. It's a very old school media operation, which is what makes the Parazit program so cool. It's not something you'd expect on this outlet.

    On a side note, there's intrigue that it is also, if you think about it, bringing to light the VOA's mission (if it still has one) into much-needed focus in the 21st century. Is the VOA even needed at all any more? I don't think so. But that's another issue.

    Iranians are very skeptical people, ever more so since '79. They have a big "propaganda" filter so they wouldn't fall for stuff like this, the same way the stuff by my father's generation coming out of LA never had an impact. Therefore, for them to open their hearts and minds to this show means that this show has earned their trust. Iranians are also a very poetic, lyrical people and they feel in tune with the content produced on Parazít. And c'mon, what's wrong with having "an emotional appeal"? It's not the kind of reactionary, superficial crap that taps into people's base feelings on American TV outlets. Parazít is media content with a PULSE but attached to a BRAIN.

    Now the duo behind Parazit _might_ actually tell you, privately, that having a show on VOA is restrictive. As mentioned during The Daily Show interview, they don't "have any interest in American politics" because they aren't allowed to talk about American domestic issues. And that's where they walk a fine line, and do it well. Instead of putting their hands over their eyes and ears, spinning a story one way that sounds like a US gov't press release, they simply don't touch it.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing Lena. I found your blog via your tweet, which was copied on a stream of tweets at a WaPo blog. The usual way Social Media way these days. 8-)

  6. Of course I didn't answer my own questions, Yelena! If I've learned anything by exploring public diplomacy it's that identifying audiences, goals and success is a tricky business. However, I'll return to my comments on Parazit as satire. I believe the objective of satire is to encourage critical thinking and to challenge the party line, and from what little I've seen of the program, I believe Parazit does just that. And since propaganda (as we discussed earlier this week) thrives on closed-mindedness and a lack of critical inquiry, that places this program solidly in the PD camp for me. I think this is definitely a case of asking the audience to cast information in a new light, as opposed to simply telling viewers what to think.

  7. hi lena
    first of all i should notice parazit is a copy of program "parazit" that brodcasted in youth radio(in persian "radio javan"رادیو جوان"(parat of IRIB).you can find meny weblog and site realated to this radio in persian.

    i worked in this radio for year.i belieave that this program is propaganda .in public diplomacy we should better underestand another culture and countery but parazit focus on iranian issue .with looking to this program in iran we can not beter underestand others.this is part of psychological operation.
    you have a very good weblog and i see your weblog evry interested in public dplomacy and may be i will com to university of sothern california to study luck.

  8. Well, my response turned out to be too long, so I just made it into a full blog post. See here: "VOA's "Parazit": The Debate"