The Unexpected Benefits of the Ethically Ambivalent Job
When I graduated college, the Iraq War was in full swing. The U.S. economy was still trying to shake off the hangover of the early-2000s stock market crash. And if that wasn’t turmoil enough, my chosen profession, journalism, was beginning to suffer the initial symptoms of what would eventually become full-fledged collapse.
After applying for any number of jobs, I found myself working for a custom publisher that had recently secured a rather unusual contract with the U.S. State Department. The government wanted us to produce a glossy monthly magazine, in Arabic, that would show off American culture (in all its glory and ugliness) to a Middle Eastern audience. This monthly, titled “Hi,” was similar in spirit to other “public diplomacy” projects such as Radio Free Europe, which broadcast news over the Iron Curtain.
In theory, “Hi” was supposed to promote better understanding between the Middle East and the U.S. In reality, however, the entire project (budgeted at $4.5 million per year) was hopelessly muddled, and eventually went down in flames. As I wrote in an article about the project and its impact on diplomacy for Fast Company:
“In its doom, we see echoes of issues that still plague U.S. diplomacy in the age of Trump: a lack of direction from the very top, a systemic inability to articulate an endgame — and a willingness to implode in the face of online fury. Contrast this with the Cold War, when the United States could boast of considerable successes in public diplomacy and information warfare, as well as projecting a coherent image to the world.”
But on the plus side, there was a stunning amount of editorial freedom — to a point. We could describe the issues confronting everyday Americans, such as racism and poverty (at one point, I found himself on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma, interviewing doctors about infant mortality), but there was one thing we could absolutely, positively never bring up in print: American foreign policy. That meant no discussions about the so-called “War on Terror,” or the Israel-Palestine situation, or the ongoing violence in the streets and countryside of Iraq.
We were also forbidden from discussing domestic politics; our minders (the Bush administration’s political appointees, along with the State Department staffers who didn’t want to irritate them) became incensed at anything that even hinted at the wrestling between Democrats and Republicans, especially as the 2004 elections approached.
But irony of ironies, the articles we did publish also caused us grief. One liberal think-tank favorite, the American Prospect, railed against our content as hopelessly out of touch — because we touched on things like Flexcars and dating when we should have (in their opinion) delved into the aforementioned political issues. Other attacks came from the right: Little Green Footballs, a conservative website, crucified an article on the then-nascent fad of metrosexuality: “You are not going to believe what the U.S. State Department thinks is the best way to promote America’s image to the Arab world: Real men moisturize.”
In the face of that bad press — and lack of evidence that our 55,000 copies per month, distributed from Cairo to Kabul, were having any sort of impact — the State Department shut the project down in December 2005.
In our era of Fake News and the web, the idea of a paper (!) magazine swaying popular opinion is an anachronism. Same with radio or any other “old school” media channel. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty might have helped change the calculus of the Cold War, but the mass sentiments of the 21st century will be dictated by memes and Twitter handles.
What’s This Worth?
During those years, whenever I told people what I did for a living, their faces screwed up in some combination of horror and surprise. I didn’t support the war in Iraq, which I saw as a tragic mistake long before the U.S. Army crossed the Kuwaiti border; nor was I a fan of the Bush administration, even before I met some of its ideologically aggressive Secretaries and Undersecretaries. People asked: How could I do this? How could I work a job that touched on so many things I didn’t agree with, personally?
There are also those who argue that “public diplomacy” is a weak synonym for propaganda. Winning hearts and minds, right? But the articles I wrote aimed for truth and balance, with an equal mix of good and bad (hopefully they were translated from English to Arabic in the same spirit). Because of that, I don’t agree with the “propaganda” label in the case of “Hi,” although I ended up arguing over it a number of times.
I suffered, to a certain extent, from youthful idealism. I thought that public diplomacy, no matter how imperfect, might help in an otherwise messy situation. Or as a friend in the military put it at the time: “Everybody you successfully reach out to, well, they’re one less person I might have to shoot.”
But in the end, I’m not sure what idealism’s worth. Whenever I think about it, I can’t help but conclude that working an ethically questionable job was valuable simply because it provided a front-row seat into just how questionable life can get. Not everyone gets that kind of glimpse behind the curtain, especially at a relatively young age. Hopefully, I’m smarter and more ethical for it — but some days, I’m not so sure.