Monday, January 30, 2012

Alyona strikes back

There it comes - as anticipated. Russia Today responds to Al Jazeera's "attack", while Al Jazeera - not too happy about Asssange's change of heart - snaps back with a not-so-friendly report on that latter development. [And please note, this is noteworthy because AJE had quite a cozy relationship with Assange, at least in the past.]

Here's Alyona Minkovski with her "response", just a couple of days after the Listening Post episode aired:

For the lack of substance to respond with, I guess turning to ad hominem arguments was the easy way out. Alyona obviously likes the attention, and - in line with RT's unofficial mandate - enjoys making "hyperbolic statements" and overextending her grand personality. I just wish it did some good to Russian public diplomacy. But, as it is now clear, she couldn't care less about that part of RT's objective.

And, just if you're curious, here is a quote from Al Jazeera's coverage of RT's Assange deal.

Media analyst Konstantin von Eggert said he expected to see Assange interview Russian allies and anti-establishment guests such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and left-leaning US academic Noam Chomsky.
"Julian Assange is famous for his anti-American and anti-Western views, that is exactly why Russia Today is hiring him as a journalist," said Von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.
"So this partnership is logical... It has nothing to do with freedom of speech or real journalism." 

And, this might be just the beginning...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More thoughts [on "the other"]

Had a great evening today. You know, one of those that warm your heart and show that things, probably, aren't as bad as they can sometimes seem. They just can't be, with such people around.

A lovely chat, a piece of pie, and a cup of tea spiced with big dreams, great ambitions, and lots of enthusiasm. Most importantly, an open mind and a kind soul.

@Kramerbooks, if curious.

She also happens to be Azeri.

My greatest thanks go to AUBG for making this possible and for showing me, yet again, that despite all, we can share a similar worldview and, when in Washington, enjoy a nice evening together. My wish now is to make it happen in Yerevan (or Baku, for that matter).

Some day...

See some previous "Thoughts on the 'other'".

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

RT's "Assange Diplomacy"

Yes. Just in case you didn't already know. Two days ago, on January 23, Assange announced that he will be starting a new TV show; today, Russia Today announced that it will be hosting the show. There you go.

Nice move. Really. After all that been said here and elsewhere regarding RT's approach and coverage, they probably couldn't have made a better choice. Currently, he is probably the most prominent critic of the U.S. (and the policies of the West, in general), and since RT is officially in the business of criticizing the West (for better or worse), this was an opportunity not to be missed.

RT's director Margarita Simonyan tweeted her excitement
[translated from Russian]:

"Drum roll. Solemn face... WE will be airing Julian Assanges first TV show!!! That's who I went to see in London. Press release coming soon." [sic]

The Monday statement from Wikileaks reads:

"Both a pioneer for a more just world and a victim of political repression, [Assange] is uniquely placed to catalyse a global discussion on how to go forward.
In recognition of this, Assange will draw together controversial voices from across the political spectrum - iconoclasts, visionaries and power insiders - each to offer a window on the world tomorrow and their ideas on how to secure a brighter future.
Julian Assange says: 'Through this series I will explore the possibilities for our future in conversations with those who are shaping it. Are we heading towards utopia, or dystopia and how we can set our paths? This is an exciting opportunity to discuss the vision of my guests in a new style of show that examines their philosophies and struggles in a deeper and clearer way than has been done before.'"

The series will begin in mid-March and Assange will host them at his home in London, where he is currently under house arrest. There is no further information on the content or guests that the show will feature, and yet, we can now be sure that none of them will be critical of the Kremlin. So much for Assange's fight for freedom of information and expression...

(And just by the way, I was half expecting Al Jazeera to be "the one". Seems there's been a fallout there, too...)

As for RT itself, we should take it as another chance to poke the U.S. (even more). But what use of it for public diplomacy? Many Americans already take RT for a joke, that is, if they know about or watch it (which many don't). Is it how Russia is trying to get its message out to the English-speaking world?

And yes, although there are also many with whom Wikileaks and Assange's message might have resonated, I doubt they will be happy to see him on RT (out of all places). His credibility is now in shatters, while RT is jubilant to be getting some more bad press. Seems like their "measurement" of success is limited to quantity (i.e. the amount of attention they get), while completely forgetting about the quality of it: the type of coverage and its effects on foreign attitudes towards Russia.

After all, bad press canNOT be good press in public diplomacy: therein lies its core difference from PR.

Yet, make sure to tune in. Promises to be hilarious!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Al Jazeera's "Listening Post"

Al Jazeera's weekly Listening Post is an absolute must for anyone interested in issues related to journalism, international media and ICTs. It usually covers a broad range of media-related stories, not only bringing in various perspectives on issues the program chooses to focus on that week but also raising questions that can easily be ignored and/or forgotten when mixed in with the usual news digest. Especially here, in the US.

With very rare exceptions, the program is very interesting (certainly recommend watching it; if you're not hooked on it yet, that is), and although there could be - as always - certain improvements here and there, I would say it is by far among the best programs, if not the best, of its kind in terms of analyzing issues pertaining to international/foreign media.

I thought I'd highlight this week's episode, especially because the second major story it covers is Russia Today. I won't be talking much about RT here, since I was invited to provide a short comment on the issue, which is in the program itself. And then, the readers of this blog already know my "feelings" about RT all too well, so I don't think I need to repeat myself too much.

The program did a very good job in encapsulating the major issues surrounding RT, its "origins", its coverage and (questionable) credibility, especially in such a short period of time. I was happy to see them address - very diplomatically - the question of RT's Director Margarita Simonyan, RT's sources of funding and desperate attempts to shine on the international scene. However, the problem is not in that they don't shine; rather, in that they shine in a negative light. The conspiracy theories, stories on aliens and pet fluff are all true. I'm just glad RT seems to have gotten rid of the ridiculous "language learning" program.

There were a couple of things, however, that the Listening Post didn't really touch upon. The first one is the issue of how RT actually promotes many of the very stereotypes of Russia held in the West, all the while claiming that it has set out to challenge these very stereotypes. The other is the evaluation of RT as an actual public diplomacy tool. After all, the members of its audience are not "blank slates": they perceive and selectively process the provided information based on their worldview and preexisting beliefs.

RT seemed to be enthusiastic about having the Listening Post do a piece on them - reporters and the director herself gave what looked like quite extensive interviews. Yet, Ms. Simonyan seemed rather perplexed by the actual "outcome". On her twitter feed she commented [translated from Russian]:
"Al Jazeera is bashing us in their program today. We are, they say, propaganda and generally trou de cul. I'm amazed at their shamelessness :) After all, the entire world knows that their boss... was getting CIA instructions on the coverage of the Arab Spring. Wikileaks leaked all these negotiations. But no, they still pretend to be an independent media organization."

And the war is on. Yet again. This time it is Al Jazeera, not Fox News.

This is not to say, of course that the rest of the program does not merit attention. The first part on the coverage of the assassination of the Iranian scientists is a great angle that deserves a separate post in itself. The other one I wanted to point out was the bit on the mysterious assassination of a Pakistani journalist, whose case was never really investigated. Very timely, especially after the lame promise to "investigate" the murder of Mukarram Khan Aatif. There we go - yet another name on the list. Hrant Dink, of course, is on that list, too. Just happens to be a different country and under a slightly different set of circumstances. But that's a different post, as well.

To conclude this one, in short: watch the Listening Post! :)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fulbright on USIA

Last week I found myself in the special collections section of the University of Arkansas Library, helping out with some research (rather, with some of the legwork involved in archival research) on William J. Fulbright. (invaluable experience, I should say!) To me, the Senator's most distinguished contribution has always been his role in the growth of the educational and cultural exchanges as well as his strong stance on foreign aid. Yet, it was quite an eye-opening experience to come across many other domestic and international issues, of which I was obviously not as well aware of (if at all). Definitely something to read up on in the near future...

Yet, what I wanted to share here was a specific document, a copy of in-house communication. Although I'm sure there are many more similar ones (some of which I saw but sadly had to pass..), this was the only USIA or public diplomacy-related document that I managed to get on the camera as I was hectically clicking away through the folders.

From: MS/F956/144, BCN 121. F24 Fulbright Papers

It is basically a note to the Chief of Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from April 1958 where Fulbright is expressing discontent (to put it mildly) about the weakness of certain informational campaigns undertaken by the US Information Agency. Unfortunately I was unable to find the "enclosed copy" of the letter referred to above in that folder, neither did I have the time to. Yet, I do think it's noteworthy that Fulbright referred to USIA officers as "our propaganda people".

Being the strong believer in exchanges that he was, perhaps it is not all that surprising. Just ironic, and perhaps a little too telling. Especially for me, looking back some 50+ years.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Exporting Raymond" and PD

One of the advantages of being in the academia [especially as a student] is that you can get some serious breaktime over the holidays, which, for me, means time away from academic books and my laptop [well, as you can tell, I have started missing them by now]. Instead, that time is spent on real human interaction, some not so healthy gastrotravel, and catching up on movies.

It was in pursuit of the latter that we stumbled upon "Exporting Raymond" in the nearest Red Box kiosk. At the first look it sounded a little weird, but since it was about "exporting" an American sitcom to Russia, I gave in to my friend's suggestion and decided to give it a try. (OK, I'll be honest, the cover/poster had an important persuasive role, too...)

Image from MovieRewind.

It is a hilarious documentary about the creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond", Phil Rosenthal, who - after his show's immense success in the U.S. - gets invited by Sony Pictures to come up with the Russian equivalent. Enthusiastic and perhaps a little too overconfident, Rosenthal flies to Moscow only to find out that the image of the transformation he had in mind (which, in essence, involved direct translation of the script and perhaps a little adjustment in terms of names and places) is not going to work.

After months of work and multiple attempts at various approaches, Rosenthal and his Moscow-based compatriots have to settle for a dramatically different version created by the help of the local members of the team. The documentary claims, however, that it ended up being a success on the Russian market, despite the fact that the Americans had a very hard time understanding how or why Russians would consider their product as funny.

What Rosenthal was obviously missing was the need to contextualize the themes, actors, and even phrases, to which his potential audience would relate. He went in with the assumption that mundane, family issues - a la Americana - would be universally relatable. At some point he even says something along the lines of: "People all around the world have families. All families have similar issues." In short, what worked in the U.S., should have worked everywhere else, too, according to him.

That is why he is having such a hard time comprehending what is wrong. At first, he was not even willing to be flexible enough in terms of adaptation and localization, whether of the major themes or of the minute details. It is this (should I say?) naïveté and gradual transformation of the director (who is also the narrator of the documentary) that makes the film so funny and useful, especially from a public diplomacy perspective.

A quote of note from the New York Time's piece on the documentary, which came out last April:

“Here’s how it was explained to me,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “They’re coming, the Russians today, from a place of a little humiliation, having lost the cold war, and the last thing they want or need is some American coming and telling them what to do. So maybe that accounts for some of the resistance I was getting. Or maybe senses of humor are different all over the world. But I couldn’t help believing that dealing with your parents and your wife and your kids and your brother, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a common thing.”

Since most of the interaction happened in Russian (and thus, through an interpreter), Rosenthal was clearly unaware of what was going on or what certain expressions and "explanations" provided to him (often translated verbatim) meant in the Russian context. Although he claims to have "finally understood" Russia, its people, and therefore, what needed to be changed in the show, he was clearly oblivious to his unawareness even when making this post-production documentary. He came in with certain stereotypes, walked out with many more (although some of the initial ones appeared to have changed, indeed ), yet he seemed to have failed to recognize that.

What has public diplomacy got to do with it? Quite obviously, everything. Although to me, personally, the American-Russian case makes it all the more amusing, I believe this film could be about any other case of public diplomacy, including the process and the lessons that can (and should) be learned as a result.

And since it was about an American trying to communicate with a foreign public, I'll just stick to the American example. As I might have noted previously on this blog, I am very ambivalent about the universality of certain values and norms that are believed (by the U.S.) to be applicable to all, identically and uniformly, just like Rosenthal's assumptions about family values and issues. As the film demonstrates, however, the issue is not that there are no families elsewhere, or no related problems, but rather that the day-to-day issues, perspectives, and relations are slightly - yet significantly - different from what the Americans expect them to be (naturally, based on their exclusively-American experience).

Three important highlights (even if not new), just from the example above:

1 - Values of liberty and democracy, although espoused and desired by most (if not all) people, cannot be, and consequently should not be expected to be, identical around the world. The specific shades, details, and forms should be highly contextualized (historically, culturally, socially, geographically, etc.) in order to have effective local adaptation.

2 - Effective public diplomacy -- i.e. international, and therefore cross-cultural, communication -- cannot happen unless both sides have sufficient (if not deep) understanding and appreciation of each other. The lack of this understanding, stereotypes, rigidity, and the refusal to accept alternative perspectives/experiences as valid, are the perfect recipe for failure: not only does it hamper the communication process itself, it also curtails the effectiveness of the message by making it inappropriate, unrelatable, and possibly even unacceptable. This can happen to countries, institutions, and organizations, yet individuals seem to be the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, it is the individuals who drive most of the public diplomacy efforts - whether American or not - and therefore, it is all the more important for them to avoid resembling Rosenthal. Please.

3 - This is a perfect case example of American cultural diplomacy. Close to none official involvement, while the private organization/individual are trying to give it their best. However, they never even consider the wider implications of their efforts (even if essentially profit-driven). To them, it's strictly television, and although in many ways Rosenthal was trying "to tell an American story with a Russian accent", his objective was not to bring the two nations together. I guess there are two lessons here: (1) America's cultural diplomats rarely recognize their diplomatic role abroad and, (2) as suggested by the New York Times piece,  for such projects to work one either has to stick to the original language (i.e. in this case, just dub the original show in Russian, so as to manage expectations) or learn the local language well (and with it, the culture).

In short: it's a good watch, even for non-PD folks!

Monday, January 2, 2012

The "Tandem" Disappointment

It had become a great tradition started by one of the shows on the state-run ORT channel in Russia - "Olivie Show" - to feature the ruling duo of the country in a cartoon during their special New Year's programming. Medvedev and Putin would sum up the year, while performing Russian "chastushki".

2010: First Edition

Although it was seen as quite daring in terms of "acceptable" political satire, the cartoons only made fun of the so-called "tandem", while there was no blunt criticism, as such, of the policies themselves. After all, they were made by and aired on ORT, and were, therefore, within the bounds of acceptable self-criticism. I guess a good way of looking at these would be seeing them as an equivalent of Putin making a joke about himself driving a LADA or, say, diving in search of strategically placed ancient artifacts. 

2011: Second Edition

Given their immense popularity at home and abroad, I was very much looking forward to the 2012 edition [I know many others did, too], especially in light of the recent events and political developments in the country. I was very curious to know what they'd have to tell to their people and the world... But, as I sadly found out, the dancing tandem was no more.

Would be good to know whether they did not make the much-anticipated appearance because of the producers' fear of being critical - no matter the satire - or was it really a message to indicate the fact that the actual Medvedev-Putin duo itself is (or soon will be) no more. One thing I am sure of: the absence cannot be attributed to the lack or shortage of good subjects and issues to feature.

Very disappointing...

Nevertheless, Olivie Show did put on a good performance by Obama and Clinton. Unfortunately, there is no video with English translation/subtitles available, yet I am sure that even non-Russian speakers would appreciate this cover by Mr President and Madam Secretary. [UPDATE: Although I finally saw a version with badly translated English subtitles (below), I believe it would still be difficult to follow the lyrics. Yet, I hope it gives you a very broad and general idea about their meaning.]

Couple of thoughts on this one:

- It is critical - but of course - of the US policies around the world, essentially placing the blame directly on Obama and Clinton.

- Having in mind what the source is and in light of multiple blatant criticisms throughout the past year by various officials or various ranks, I don't think there is anything surprising about it at all. A couple of days ago, for example, Russia Today featured an opinion piece that ran along the same lines.

- Anti-public diplomacy? Seems like the US still has a lot of work to do - especially in Russia...!

Happy New 2012!