Author urges U.S. public diplomacy to include debates about media content standards

WASHINGTON – What is good for U.S. media businesses but bad for American diplomacy?

That is the question posed at today’s CCLP Washington forum by Martha Bayles, author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad”.

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Author Martha Bayles with Pubic Diplomacy Council president Don Bishop (left) and CCLP senior fellow Adam Powell (right)

Since 1999, she said, U.S. media companies have more than quadrupled their revenue from overseas sales. But more and more, Bayles argued, the content is offensive to foreign audiences — and it misrepresents the United States.

In India and many other countries, she said, there may be support for freedom of the press, but that support does not extend to sexually explicit television, movies or Internet video.

Bayles asserted this is all a new phenomenon. For most of the 20th century, she argued, mass media engaged in self-censorship, through the content codes created by motion picture industry and the National Association of Broadcasters. But those all disappeared, undone, she said, by cable TV and court decisions extending First Amendment rights to new media.

“The only form of censorship [now] is parental control,” she argued.

Bayles said she is not in favor of censorship, adding that censorship would be legally and politically “futile.”

Instead, she urged the U.S. to export the debate over sexually explicit content to other countries. American embassies could hold forums and debates about U.S. media and media standards – “To have an American come and say, ‘We have mixed feelings, too.'”

Bayles pointed to the television series “House of Cards” as an example of misrepresentation. She praised it as “a classy production, riveting to watch.” But she said that the series’ “grim” depiction of American democracy has become “anti-democratic propaganda” in some countries, notably China.

But despite — or because of — this view of U.S. democracy, “House of Cards” has a large audience in China, noted Bayles, adding the senior Chinese leadership are fans, according to the Chinese news agency.

Bayles related one quote from the series’ second season as an example of what could be mistaken overseas as typical of U.S. democracy.

“One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” says the lead character as he is sworn in as Vice President. “Democracy is so overrated.”

Monday’s CCLP Washington Communication Leadership forum was part of a monthly series of First Monday lunch forums presented in partnership with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and the Public Diplomacy Council.