Those of us who were in New York on 9/11in fact, everyone who was in Americacan attest to the overwhelming feeling of needing to do something, anything, to pitch in. In the days and weeks following that awful day, I spent all night feeding rescue workers at Ground Zero, volunteered to give blood that wasn't needed and wrote stories about the heroes and victims. It didn't seem enough. So I put forward the sharpest skill set I had, starting magazines, which put me smack in the middle of the one of the uglier, untold stories of the Bush administration.
As part of a public diplomacy program similar to Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, the State Department had allocated more than $4 million a year to launch a magazine about American culture, which would be translated into Arabic and sold across the Arab world. (A TV station, Al Hurra, and Radio Sawa were launched around the same time.) Other than a corny name, Hi!, the one English word everyone on the planet knows, it was an empty vessel.
The Bush official held up the offending photo, as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting, and pointed to a pack mule that, by other names, might be known as a donkey.
To fill it, the State Department hired a highly regarded Washington-based custom media company, TMG, which in turn hired me. Working with a squad of Arab-born Americans, including a smart, opinionated Libyan, a poetic Syrian, and a diligent Palestinian, I would craft America's public face for the part of the world that hated us most, as translated via the cover and substance of a glossy magazine.