Killing the Messenger?
Has the United States government decided that Americans don't care about what the world thinks of their country? You might get that impression from the State Department's Web site.
Last week the department stopped posting surveys of how the international press is covering significant developments in U.S. foreign policy. Based on reporting from U.S. embassies around the world, the surveys quoted newspaper and broadcast reports in just about every language.
It wasn't exactly scintillating reading, and the surveys didn't generate much buzz beyond qualifying for the the Librarians' Internet Index of "Web sites you can trust." But the information, posted regularly since 1998, constituted a comprehensive documentary record of the impact of U.S. foreign policy on global public opinion.
In recent months, the surveys had covered media reaction to President Bush's appearance at the Latin American summit, the Iraqi constitutional referendum, and the six party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. In past years, the surveys detailed world reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Abu Ghraib photographs, the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, and the effort to provide aid to victims of the South Asia tsunami.
No more. The Web address of the Office of Media Reaction --
usinfo.state.gov/products/medreac.htm -- now yields a "page not found" error. The archive of past surveys is also unavailable. The page states, "The USINFO website is undergoing significant design changes." There's a link to the surveys from the main State Department press page, but it's dead.
The changes involve more than just the "design," according to a State Department official who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
"The USINFO.state.gov Web site is directed, by law, at foreign audiences. It doesn't make sense for us to put up what foreign newspapers are saying," he said.
The official said that the move was not ordered by Karen Hughes, the new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
"The question in public diplomacy is, How do we measure results?" he said. "Everybody here is always looking at resources and reviewing our products for effectiveness and efficiency."
Back in 1998, the Clinton administration's plan for reorganizing the State Department said that the Office of Research and Media Reaction should seek "to understand foreign publics through opinion polling abroad and, utilizing reporting from USIS [U.S. Information Service] posts abroad and other media, to analyze attitudes toward U.S. policies and activities in the foreign media."
Another official told me the department is still monitoring foreign media reaction but the resulting written surveys are for "internal consumption only."
In other words, U.S. officials still want to know what the world thinks of the United States. They just no longer care to share that information with the rest of the government or the American public.
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