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U.S. Propaganda Pitch Halted

Opposition from three key Arab governments has stalled a State Department drive to improve America's image among Muslims, a newspaper reports.

The Wall Street Journal reports the campaign of television and radio advertisements was suspended because the Egyptian, Lebanese and Jordanian governments expressed opposition to airing the spots on government-run channels.

The ads are part of a $15 million propaganda blitz called "Shared Values" designed by the McCann-Erickson marketing firm and headed by former advertising industry insider Charlotte Beers, who heads the State Department's office of public diplomacy. The campaign also includes print ads, a website and a book.

The purpose of the campaign, as described by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher when the ads first played, was "telling our story overseas, telling our story in many different ways at different levels, telling first basically who we are and what we are about."

"This part of America, this aspect of American society, the status of Muslims in America, is one that we find very often is maybe one of the most misunderstood aspects of our society and one of the things that we think is important for us to tell America's story on," Boucher continued.

Despite the objections from Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, the ads did run for five weeks starting in October on private and government channels in Pakistan, Kuwait and Malaysia and on pan-Arab channels. About $5 million was spent to buy airtime. But the ads got mixed reviews.

Now, one State Department official told the Journal, the administration wants to evaluate how effective the ads can be.

The one- and two-minute spots feature documentary-style interviews with Muslims in America who relate their experiences and describe U.S. society as tolerant.

One of those interviewed, New York City paramedic Farooq Muhammad, tells the audience: "I have never gotten disrespect because I am a Muslim."

Schoolteacher Raiwa Ismail explains, "I wear a hijab (head covering) in the classroom where I teach. I have never had a child who thought it was weird or anything like that."

Critics said the ads came off as forced and a tad phony.

"It was like this was the 1930s and the government was running commercials showing happy blacks in America," said Youssef Ibrahim, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Islamic opinion is influenced more by what the U.S. does than anything it can say," said an ad executive, Steve Hayden.

The State Department considered buying time on the pan-Arab station al-Jazeera, the Journal reported, but opted not to. The station has aired many messages from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The public diplomatic push is not over, however: the State Department is still running a web site promoting a tolerant image. Visitors to the site have ordered 5,000 copies of "Muslim Life in America," a marketing book.

Nor is the United States alone in launching a diplomatic effort on the airways. The Journal reports several Arab countries, concerned about their reputation here following the Sept. 11 attacks, are working on ways to get propaganda onto American channels.
By Jarrett Murphy

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