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Telling America's Story

OVERSEAS perceptions of the United States are shaped largely by the American popular culture that's exported to nearly every corner of the globe. The result is an incomplete, and sometimes negative, view of the US.

Many in other lands, as here, find much that is objectionable in the products of America's studios. But US-made films, TV shows, and popular music can also convey something positive about America.

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It's been noted that East Europeans watching old episodes of "Kojak" or "Columbo" saw a different kind of policemen from those of their experience. South Africans watching "The Cosby Show" caught a glimpse of racial equality. Broadcasts of American jazz helped Russians envision alternatives to their state-ordered lives.

Given the volatility of the post-cold-war world, the communication of such democratic values as individual initiative and toleration for the beliefs of others is, if anything, more critical than ever. Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. calls the conveyance of ideas and democratic know-how "soft power," as opposed to the hard power of economic clout and military strength. He thinks the marshaling of such power will mold the political and social preferences of much of mankind in the years ahead.

But Mr. Nye, speaking at a recent conference on popular culture held by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, underscored that the job shouldn't be left to filmmakers, TV producers, and pop singers.

There's some danger of that happening. Government-supported broadcasting and cultural exchange programs started during the cold war and have in many cases matured into credible sources of news and information. Now they are struggling to maintain funding.

As peoples in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin American set forth on their own democratic experiments, they will need more - not less - information about the American experiment.

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