For months, the White House has been struggling to project a positive image of Americans for overseas auds.But it hasn’t been easy for the Bush administration’s propaganda machine. Last week at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld abruptly closed the new Office of Strategic Influence, following allegations that the operation intended to feed bogus info to overseas journalists. Rumsfeld denied it, but said the rumors were too damaging. “The office is done. It’s over,” he told the media. “What do you want, blood?” The government’s main distribution platform is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti and Radio Free Asia. On Feb. 25 President Bush helped celebrate the Voice of America’s 60th birthday. “VOA broadcasts in 53 languages, to nearly every country on Earth, reaching an audience of over 90 million listeners. Many are listening right now, exercising their God-given right to freedom, free access to information,” Bush said. In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the VOA came under fierce criticism for interviewing members of the Taliban. On Oct. 12, Robert Reilly was named the agency’s new director, charged with returning the “America” to the Voice of America. The president said he was particularly pleased about the BBG’s soon-to-be launched Middle East Radio Network. The 24-hour net, which will provide a blend of public affairs programming and music, is the brainchild of Westwood One’s Norm Pattiz, a Bill Clinton appointee to the BBG. Pattiz tells Variety that the network will be fully operational by late summer, run out of Washington and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and target Arabs 25 and under. “We won’t be talking at them, we’ll be talking to them and with them,” Pattiz says. The net, which will begin broadcasting on a small scale in the next month, will use FM frequencies, as well as digital satellite. But Pattiz hesitates at being characterized as a propaganda arm of the White House. BBG, and all of its channels, are funded by taxpayer dollars, but that doesn’t mean it’s beholden to the president. “We obviously recognize that the administration is interested in coordinating the various efforts, but we take our responsibility to be independent very seriously,” Pattiz says. “Our mission is quite simply to promote freedom and democracy through the free flow of accurate, reliable and credible news and information about America and the world to audiences overseas.” Unfortunately, it would seem, most of the rest of the world seems to get its information about the U.S. from American movies, music and TV shows. At a National Assn. of Broadcasters huddle Feb. 25, communications adviser Karen Hughes lamented that when she traveled to Asia late last month with Bush, the first thing anyone asked her about was Hollywood movies and TV shows. “That’s how they get the sense that we are materialistic and without values,” Hughes said.
For all variety's headlines, follow us @variety on twitter