One of the major components of Russia's attempt to burnish its reputation in the United States, the subject of my article in the current issue, is Russia Today, an international, English-language news channel modeled on CNN and the BBC. Earnest as the Russian government has been in its endeavor to paint a positive picture of itself overseas, the station is indicative of the broader problems confronting the Russians in their PR strategy; namely, it's hard to advertise yourself as appealing when you do nasty and brutal things both at home and abroad.
Last week, the Christian Science Monitor brought news that the world's other resurgent authoritarian power, the People's Republic of China, plans to create a "Chinese CNN." Like the Russian effort I detail, the Chinese are pouring vast amounts of money into a multifaceted media campaign. In addition to the $6 billion they've allotted to the TV station, plans are in the works do double the number of foreign bureaus of the government-run Xinhua news agency and to upgrade the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.
I predict (and hope) this effort will fail, no matter how many yuan the Chinese throw at it. For China faces the same problem as Russia: it's an authoritarian state that represses its own people and (to a lesser extent) threatens its neighbors. It's difficult to gloss over that behavior, especially in a country like the United States, which has the freest media in the world. The Monitor story cites a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center showing that majorities in only seven of 23 countries expressed favorable opinions of the People's Republic, and those numbers are part of a downward trend.
China and Russia are not the only two grave abusers of human rights which have sought to win over international audiences with English-language cable networks. For over two years, the Iranian government has beamed PressTV across the world. A few months ago, I was tricked into appearing on the channel after one of its producers said she was booking me for a Danish television show. (For a recounting of that story, and the station's bizarre atmospherics, click here). Of course, there's no scientific way to gauge whether or not these efforts will work, but I'd like to think that most Americans (if not most Europeans) will not be won over by the crude propaganda of countries that kill journalists and threaten to (or actually) launch unprovoked attacks against their neighbors. Never mind the cheesy production values and propagandistic mien of these stations. As long as countries like China, Russia and Iran continue their internally repressive and externally aggressive behavior, I don't see how spending massive gobs of money on TV will improve their reputations.