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The Washington Quarterly 25.2 (2002) 115-127

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A Broadcasting Strategy to Win Media Wars

Edward Kaufman

Some have argued that using military means in the war against terrorism might ultimately make the problem worse by helping the opposition cast the campaign as a legitimate clash of civilizations. 1 In modern, post-Cold War international conflicts, we must pay attention not only to our military response to conflicts and crises but also to the role that information and media play in creating and feeding these conflicts. For instance, low-tech "hate radio" in hot spots such as Central Asia, Serbia, the West Bank, and Gaza has whipped up emotions and motivated the killing of thousands of people. Military power alone is often insufficient to resolve modern conflicts and will likely be unable to end this current war against terrorism. Effective broadcasting to "win hearts and minds" strengthens the traditional triad of diplomacy, economic leverage, and military power and is the fourth dimension of foreign conflict resolution. Particularly in times of crisis, the United States must deliver clear, effective programming to foreign populations via the media. How does one win modern media wars? All eyes now are on Afghanistan, but the impact of international media has not yet been measured in that war-torn country. 2 For a more complete case study, we have to look a little farther back--to the Balkans.

'Spinning' in Belgrade

In 1993, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then-chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on European Affairs, visited the Balkans to investigate what he could do to help end the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. [End Page 115] Staffers at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade warned Biden that Slobodan Milosevic would use Yugoslav state media to leverage the senator's visit to build his own popularity and support among the people of Serbia. They predicted that Milosevic would want to have a press conference after the meeting at which he and the senator could address the press. The state radio and television would not use what Biden said, but would use a voice-over saying that this important U.S. government official had come to Belgrade to pay homage to Milosevic, an influential player on the world scene. Biden made his meeting with Milosevic conditional on no press attendance.

U.S. embassy staff said Milosevic had used his control of state-owned radio and television to inflame the Serbian people. They thought that one of the reasons that the Serb soldiers had committed their crimes in Bosnia and Croatia was because of the daily broadcasts of the manufactured atrocities of the Bosnian Muslims, provoking a desire among the Serbs to seek revenge. They said that Serbian state television and radio had reported that the hated Croats and Muslims were raping nuns and killing babies. The media appeared to be escalating the conflict toward genocide.

Biden said he learned many things about Milosevic and the Balkans during his visit, the most important thing being how media can be misused to start and feed religious, ethnic, racial, and regional conflicts. If the United States is to deal with these problems in the future, he concluded, we have to move beyond military, political, and economic weapons. 3 We must learn how to fight the media war.

Biden became intimately involved in the effort to consolidate all U.S. international broadcasting after that trip. His legislation, the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, created the Broadcasting Board of Governors 4 (BBG) composed of eight private citizens--four Democrats and four Republicans--and the director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). He did this to assure the integrity of the journalists in the organization and to maintain their ability to operate under the Voice of America (VOA) charter. 5 The government-funded BBG became an independent federal entity in October 1999 when the U.S. secretary of state replaced the USIA director on the board.

Forget Fire--Fight Media with Media

In an effort to resolve the Kosovo conflict, the United States intensified its existing economic sanctions on...


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