Don’t worry, be happy – IBB government employee responds to Smith-Mundt questions as a private blogger

BBG Watch Commentary

Kim Andrew Elliott BlogKim Andrew Elliott is a government employee at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who claims that his blog on international broadcasting has nothing to do with his government employment.

He is, however, the only IBB employee who regularly publishes on issues of U.S. international broadcasting without apparently suffering any negative consequences from IBB higher-ups. They have been known to deal harshly with their critics among their employees and outsiders.

This leads some to believe that Kim Andrew Elliott reflects his IBB bosses’s views on the poorly-planned and disastrously executed Smith-Mundt Act modification (vigorously pushed by these government officials) and on some other issues as well, for example when he attacks Radio Free Asia (RFA) and calls for consolidation of all U.S. international broadcasting in one central unit. He claims that RFA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) duplicate the work of the Voice of America (VOA). Many disagree with this view.

Ultimately, we don’t know to what extent Kim Andrew Elliott speaks for himself or for his bosses, or both. This also reflects a larger problem with the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 which allows U.S. government-funded broadcasters to distribute news in the United States. Distinctions between government press releases and news are being blurred. Distinctions between private and official comments by government employees are being blurred as well. Distinctions between government press and free press are also becoming more difficult to determine.

Even though BBG/IBB employees are allowed to distribute news domestically only upon request, many doubt that government officials in charge of these media outlets will be able to resist the temptation to engage in domestic public relations activities through such news distribution or even to resort to propaganda.

Journalists working for these organizations may have no intention to practice propaganda in any form, domestically or internationally, but they will not be the ones in charge of domestic news distribution. The rules were written by high-level government officials who will determine how they are implemented.

IBB is the management arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting. It includes VOA, Radio and TV Marti and semi-private surrogate broadcasters, such as Alhurra, RFA, and RFE/RL.

Dr. John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service Officer who teaches courses at Georgetown University on public diplomacy, is one of many experts who have been raising legitimate concerns that government officials may try to manipulate news funded by U.S. taxpayers specifically for foreign audiences in countries without free media to make themselves look good in the United States or even to propagandize to Americans on behalf of themselves or the administration.

Dr. Brown pointed out that since much of the U.S. media struggles with funding shortages, commercial media outlets may be tempted to use government-provided news without clearly identifying its funding, source or purpose.

While Kim Andrew Elliott was not responding to Dr. Brown’s questions in his role as a government employee, his message was loud and clear: don’t worry, be happy. So what if U.S. government-funded news gets domestic distribution in the U.S.? No harm done, now or ever.

Others are not as unconcerned. They note the First Amendment protection against government restrictions on free press and the unusual situation of the government trying to act as free press in the domestic U.S. market. They point to a potential for abuse of this role by government officials.

In our view, Kim Andrew Elliott’s “private” blog and his answers to John Brown’s questions are a good example of the blurring of distinctions between government press releases and government-funded news. In the end, Americans may have no idea who is speaking for whom, who pays for it, and who benefits from “the news” released in the United States by their government.

While the law says that U.S. government-funded news for overseas audiences should be released in the United States only upon request, it is not clear whether the car-chase video, which John Brown and Kim Andrew Elliott discuss, had been in fact requested by U.S. media outlets or whether Alhurra or IBB officials offered it to domestic media without such a request because they saw in it good publicity for themselves.

Who can guarantee that in the future they won’t do it to manipulate domestic public opinion?

This post, which includes, Kim Andrew Elliott’s answers, is republished from John Brown’s public diplomacy blog, “John Brown’s Notes and Essays.”

In addressing Dr. Brown’s concerns, Kim Andrew Elliot told him to “relax.”

We wish it were that simple.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Alhurra coverage of the D.C. car chase: Kim Andrew Elliott replies to queries

Below are replies kindly provided by Kim Andrew Elliott to queries on my part regarding the role of Alhurra in the coverage of D.C. Car Chase:

Hello John,

Thank for your email. Good to hear from you.

I’ll try to address your questions below… 

(1) Why/how was the coverage by the Alhurra “exclusive?” (granted, the USG “indirectly” funds it). Copyright lawyers: Please enlighten me.

It was exclusive because Alhurra had the only broadcast-quality video recording of the crisis as it was unfolding near the Capitol. They were getting ready to do another story and happened to be at the right place at the right time.

(2) I’m willing to bet the MSM editors had no idea that Alhurra was a USG funded TV because of the Arabic above its English.

Probably. 

They probably got it confused with Al Jazeera.

Well, “Alhurra” is pretty clear on the screen. 

(3) As I looked at that clip, I thought I was a viewer in the Middle East …

(4) Also, having served as a Foreign Service officer in communist-dominated Eastern Europe during the Cold War, seeing a major event being covered by a state (am referring to a central government) TV station (granted, only in part) left me quite concerned about the future of media freedom in the “homeland.”

Relax. This was the only video of the event as it was unfolding, so other stations used it. It had no propaganda/public diplomacy value, other than publicity for Alhurra by making sure the Alhurra bug was on the screen.

(5) According to a senior VOA employee, apparently “the largest single market for VOA’s Somali program is — Minneapolis!” Was having such a large (granted “niche”) domestic audience the original purpose of VOA’s programs (begun in 1942), intended for international listeners? Well, I guess times have changed (I won’t say, now the US has to propagandize the whole world, including its very own USA).

Web traffic for VOA Somali may be higher from the USA than from Somalia because there aren’t yet many internet users in Somalia. The actual audience for VOA Somali, using traditional broadcast media such as shortwave, is much larger in Somalia than in the USA. 

Immigrant communities in the USA want news about their home countries in their native languages, and VOA can provide this as a value-added public service at no additional cost to the US taxpayers. The only problem is if VOA is doing propaganda rather than news, but we can assume VOA is doing news unless someone finds evidence to the contrary. 

(6) Perhaps unintentionally, but the USG is “hiding” its presence in this clip by not stating that “this footage is sponsored/presented thanks to U.S. government funding.” So your typical American viewer — not familiar with Alhurra or the sources of its funding — has no idea that what s/he is seeing is brought to her/him thanks to taxpayers’ money.

That probably would be more information than could fit in the bottom third of a TV screen. But remember, this was just video of a news event. Each MSM relayer of this video could decide whether to use it or not, and how to use it. It would be interesting to see how the various MSM outlets described Alhurra. Some did call it an Arab news outlet. Search news.google.com for…

Alhurra OR “Al Hurra”

… and an interesting content analysis could be undertaken.

At the Alhurra website, the English “About Us” is at the bottom of the page, then at the bottom of that page is the statement that Alhurra is funded by the US government.

(7) There are increasing questions in the media (see “Execution on our Streets”  by Peter Van Buren) about the shooting of this mentally-ill woman (with a child in her car, thank God spared of bullets) by USG police forces. Would it not have been appropriate in such an uncertain situation for the MSM to provide footage not provided by a USG-funded media outlet?

No such video was available from any source other than Alhurra. The MSM will use the best video they can get. Someone might have been there filming a commercial, and that would have been used if necessary.

So, John, this is not a defining case of the domestic dissemination of USIB. It was a one-off lucky video opportunity for Alhurra.

If this had taken place before the domestic dissemination prohibition was lifted, it would have been an interesting conundrum. Some MSM would have used parts of the video without asking permission, citing “fair use.” Others would have sought permission from Alhurra. Then Alhurra would have a dilemma: say no because of Smith-Mundt, or say yes because this is great publicity for Alhurra, Smith-Mundt be damned. Or Alhurra might have finessed it by saying “we can’t give you specific permission, but note that Alhurra content is in the public domain.” 

The bigger question is whether serious news coverage will eventually have to be government-subsidized or at least funded by a nonprofit. That raises the possibility of the government or nonprofit trying the guide the news, either by emphasis within each news item, or by selection of news items to be broadcast. Commercial news media have many advertisers, and that tends to dilute the influence that any one advertiser might have. 

OK to attribute the above comments to me by my name. […]

Best,

Kim

Elliott image from

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