“Propaganda is a pejorative term …”
“[T]he Declaration of Independence is, in effect, a work of propaganda …”
BBG Watch Commentary
The vast majority of articles in U.S. mainstream media and blog posts have been highly critical of the idea of U.S. government officials distributing news to Americans in the wake of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 becoming effective on July 2, 2013. Very few journalists welcome the change without any reservations. The majority criticize the change; many ridicule it. Countless taxpayers are leaving irate comments about wasting their tax dollars on “propaganda” aimed at them.
Some experts, however, including Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation, welcome the change as expanding access of Americans to foreign news. but At the same time, Dale and others are calling for much greater scrutiny of officials in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.
Other experts believe that the old Smith-Mundt Act should have been either left alone or even strengthened to prevent the government from creating government press. There are also those who defend Voice of America (VOA) journalists while blaming top International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and VOA officials of mishandling their Smith-Mundt Act modification campaign by ignoring public opinion in the United States. Critics say that by their actions these officials have undermined bipartisan public support for the important overseas mission of U.S. international broadcasting. Even some of those who support the legislative change wonder if the current IBB and VOA management team can be trusted with distributing news to Americans.
Helle C. Dale, the Heritage Foundations Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy studies, has called for greater scrutiny of the management in charge of U.S. international broadcasting in the wake of the modifications in the Smith-Mundt Act governing domestic distribution of U.S. government-funded news for overseas audiences.
She also welcomed the change in the Smith-Mundt Act as potentially good for Americans seeking foreign news.
She remains, however, a consistent critic of the management of U.S. international broadcasting.
“This month, Americans finally got the opportunity to watch and listen to news programming that the U.S. government has been broadcasting to the rest of the world for decades. This is a good thing. Americans should benefit from and be informed about the news that their tax dollars pay for — to the tune of $730 million annually.
This change in international broadcasting policy was made by the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act, signed by President Barack Obama in January. The revision took effect on July 2.
Provisions in the original Smith–Mundt Act, which authorized U.S. public diplomacy including international broadcasting, had prohibited the domestic dissemination of any public diplomacy products aimed at foreign audiences. A relic of the Cold War, the restriction produced a bizarre distortion in the age of the Internet and global mass media.”
Such U.S. government-funded news content has already been available to Americans for years on the Internet. (It was available earlier on shortwave radio.) Individual Americans and American media were also free to use these programs downloadable from the Internet and rebroadcast them in the United States.
The change in the Smith-Mundt Act gave U.S. government officials for the first time the power to actively distribute such news content to American media and possibly to target specific groups of Americans, raising civil liberties and constitutional questions.
Some claim that the new law in effect has created government press in the United States, a disturbing concept to many since freedom of the press from government interference is specifically protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” They wonder how the government can have its own “government press,” whether it can be called “free press,” and whether the government can then control it? Some see “government press” as an absurd concept that goes against all American constitutional and journalistic traditions.
Focusing on the practical side of the issue, some experts, including Heritage Foundation’s Helle Dale, believe that making Voice of America (VOA) news available in the U.S. will have an overall positive practical effect.
VOA and other U.S. government-funded media outlets do produce high-quality news reporting for overseas audiences that some Americans find interesting. But since many Americans have already been exposed to this material on the Internet and through some radio rebroadcasts in the United States, it is not clear how many more will be attracted to these programs.
Helle Dale reported that according to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), domestic stations have already expressed some interest, but it has hardly been an avalanche.
From John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Review, July 20, 2013.
“Is the statement that ‘VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive‘ propaganda for the view that ‘VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive’?”
–Question from a student; image from
Crash Chronicle 020113 HR 5736. On the Modernization of the Smith-Mundt Act.
Media has been ridiculing the idea of trusting U.S. government officials with news distribution in the United States. This poll was posted in a satirical article, Big Brother Speaks! in The Huffington Post.[/aside]
To get the law changed, International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials engaged in what critics say was an intensive misleading propaganda campaign to convince lawmakers and media that Americans were somehow forbidden by the old law from finding, using and rebroadcasting U.S. government-funded news. That was not the case. The change in the law may, however, encourage some stations to seek these programs. It may also encourage IBB officials to market these programs and to target specific groups of Americans.
The IBB’s Smith-Mundt Internal Policy Manual says:
“(iii) Domestic Partnerships with Incidental Distribution – The Agency may pursue and enter contractual or partnership agreements to distribute its programming in any form, or via any medium of communication, including but not limited to satellite broadcasting and the Internet. The Agency may distribute its programming via any means, regardless of whether this distribution incidentally reaches the United States, so long as distributing programming by these means serves the Agency’s international broadcasting statutory mission.”
Critics point out that it will be practically impossible to monitor IBB or VOA officials if they choose to initiate marketing in the United States or target specific groups of Americans. The VOA Charter, which has been the law since 1976 specifically forbids political slanting of VOA news, yet there have been numerous incidents of top VOA and IBB officials exerting pressure on VOA journalists to have the news changed, to cover or not to cover certain stories, or to report on them in a certain way.
A recent report quoted VOA officials justifying their decision not to send a staff correspondent to Turkey to report on anti-government protests in early June with an argument that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is a close U.S. ally. Because the VOA English news service did not have a reporter on the ground and direct access to the demonstrators, its coverage tended to tilt toward reporting Prime Minister Erdogan’s official statements. The VOA Turkish Service, however, was able to provide more extensive and balanced coverage. But Americans following VOA English news on Turkey in early June got what critics say is a distorted picture of the confrontation between the protesters and the Turkish prime minister.
Last year, independent experts warned that the VOA Russian website had developed a “pro-Putin bias” because VOA and IBB officials forced out experienced journalists and replaced them with inexperienced contractors. Top officials ignored these findings and later attacked those who brought them to the attention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors members. Due to public pressure, the management eventually introduced some reforms and Russian news coverage by VOA has improved.
While welcoming the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, Helle Dale and others are warning about possible abuses of the new law by IBB and VOA officials. IBB is a highly dysfunctional management unit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting. Resentment among VOA journalists against top VOA managers is extremely high just as employee morale is extremely low, sources told BBG Watch and pointed to numerous articles on the BBG employee union AFGE Local 1812 website.
The agency is headed by a bipartisan board of nine members that currently has only four members serving, with only one Republican member left, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe who has been the strongest advocate on the board for good management, accountability and transparency. He may be losing his seat soon due to what many believe were behind the scenes intrigue and a smear campaign initiated by top IBB officials.
Lacking a quorum, the board is unable to vote and make key decisions. BBG members have found that their attempts to introduce reforms and even simple requests for information are being resisted by IBB and VOA executives who feel that they cannot be replaced under the protection of IBB Director Richard Lobo. He is a presidential appointee and cannot be replaced by the BBG board.
The agency is effectively run by top IBB executives. They and their counterparts at VOA have been rated in numerous Office of Personnel Managment (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) as being the worst managers in the federal government. Putting and keping them in charge of distributing news to Americans has raised serious and numerous concerns.
Helle Dale wrote in her Heritage Foundation article that “given the management problems that tend to beset the BBG, transparency is essential as it embarks on a new era in broadcasting.”
Dale also quoted Ted Lipien, a former VOA senior employee:
“I trust Voice of America journalists, but I don’t trust some of those in charge of VOA. This is just a warning, but the American public and Congress need to pay close attention to how Voice of America news operation is managed by those in charge and demand from them full transparency and accountability. Otherwise, things can and will go wrong.”
Top VOA managers were reported to have cut on original news coverage, which makes VOA news less attractive overseas and would make them likewise less attractive in the U.S. Al Jazeera and Russia Today English websites receive hundreds and thousands of Facebook “Likes” for their news stories and numerous comments from readers to barely a few “Likes” for VOA English news stories and almost no readers’ comments. Top VOA executives are also blamed for record low employee morale and for launching attacks on current and former employees as well as independent American journalists who have criticized them.
Responding to another article, which raised no questions about VOA and IBB managers, Gary Thomas, a former VOA senior correspondent and news analyst wrote:
“I worked at VOA for 27 years, and I agree that the issue is not propaganda, but you miss what the real issues are concerning VOA and the other BBG international broadcasters.The BBG is not quite the efficient firewall you portray; quite the contrary. It’s a highly dysfunctional organization, trapped in an identity crisis. Is is a news organization that is a government bureaucracy? Or is it a gov’t bureaucracy that is a news organization? I outlined some of these issues in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review:
“Mission impossible – Is government broadcasting irrelevant?” by Gary Thomas, Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2013.”
VOA management refused to answer Thomas’s questions for the articles and then attacked his professional skills by accusing him of errors, bias and malice. In the case of an independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee, VOA tried to get his press accreditation revoked for being involved in a professional dispute with a VOA employee and for annoying a top VOA executives. In this case, a VOA official also refused to answer Lee’s questions before retaliating against him. Many outside experts, even those who are supportive of the Smith-Mundt Act change, are convinced that the current VOA and IBB management team cannot be trusted with distributing news in America.
One of those who agrees with this view is Ted Lipien, a former VOA acting associate director. Lipien posted a comment on the PBS.org website for Media Shift article “Propaganda? No. Bringing ‘Voice of America’ To America Is Good for Transparency” by Josh Stearns:
“One example is especially telling. To justify their demand for lifting the domestic propaganda ban, they (IBB officials) often referred to a reported request from a Somali-language radio station in Minnesota to rebroadcast VOA Somali programs. The old law would not allow these officials to provide the program, but the Somali station could have easily downloaded it off the Internet, where it has been available to anyone, and legally used it.
The Somali example is still being used by these officials despite its nasty element of ethnic profiling. They came up with it to scare lawmakers and American public into giving them additional powers. Various other minority groups in America have a good reason to worry that they might become the next victim of such ethnic, racial or religious profiling and targeting.
The ultimate tragedy is that this controversy is terrible for U.S. domestic support for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and other U.S. government-funded media entities that serve overseas audiences that truly need such such news programs. It unjustly undermines their good reputation and exposes them to domestic partisan disputes in America.
From the trial transcript of printer John Peter Zenger in 1735, to the the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, holding that “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments,” and the 1791 First Amendment to the United States Constitution (The Bill of Rights), stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” — freedom of the press was always defined as freedom of “free press” from government interference.
Free press is free because it is free to criticize the government. Authors of these documents would consider the term “free government press” as an oxymoron. The government has always had abundant powers to communicate its own news and its own message. Free press exists to protect citizens from too much government power, including the government’s power to issue government news and information.
The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 has in effect established government press in the United States by giving government officials explicit powers to deliver political and other news to Americans, but mainly political news. At least broadcasting to foreign audiences, which serves important U.S. national security and humanitarian interests, does not raise constitutional questions of free press versus government press in the United States or fears of specific groups of Americans or all Americans being targeted with government propaganda.
The freedom of the press can never be restrained but by governments with despotic tendencies. All governments have them. Putting government officials or private bureaucrats drawing 100% of their salaries from the government in charge of news distribution in America and calling it free press is a dangerous and ludicrous idea.”
While not denying some benefits of having VOA and other U.S. government-funded content more widely available to Americans, many experts are concerned whether the current IBB and VOA management can be trusted with this task.
The vast majority of articles and blog posts are highly critical of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act and outright accuse government officials of planning to distribute propaganda. See: “Propaganda galore – Voice of America’s reputation undermined by media reports – IBB bureaucrats say they are not to blame,” BBG Watch, July 20, 2013. A few articles, however, appear as if they have been written with a lot of assistance of the IBB public relations specialists.
One such article, “The Case for American Propaganda – Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos” by Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy, July 17, 2013, generated a rebuke from John H. Brown, a former U.S. diplomat for over 20 years. Promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997, John Brown later resigned from the State Department in protest against President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Currently affiliated with Georgetown University, he writes on public diplomacy and publishes a widely-read blog John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Review.
“The real problem with the Modernized Smith-Mundt Act: its ‘zero effect on the CIA or the Pentagon‘,” by John Brown, John Brown’s Notes and Essays, July 18, 2013.
“Your kindly providing elucidation on laws/regulations governing domestic information dissemination by military/”secret ” agencies involved in foreign affairs would do much to answer a taxpayer’s (yours truly) non-specialist questions on the matter at hand:
Isn’t one of the real troubles with the Smith-Mundt “Modernization Act” that it does not deal with the 21st-century challenge of “telling it like it is” to the American people about what some would consider the propaganda/manipulation/deception originating from “homeland” organizations, no matter how well-intentioned and patriotic their employees may be?Must we Americans depend on a computer whiz-kid/high school drop-out seeking asylum in an authoritarian state (having earned more at the NSA than some American ambassadors) to reveal to us what the NSA is up to, and on timely but superficial USA Today exposures of Pentagon domestic propaganda for reliable information on the domestic use of USG propaganda (am perfectly willing to accept a better word for this)?
“So why can’t you, as a former high-ranking official (and respected journalist), provide us with complete information on these Smith-Mundt related issues — granted, of course, that such “disclosures” don’t endanger Americans working, as honestly as they can, for their country.
FYI, below are my prior minor thoughts on the above issue, which appeared in the Huffington Post in May 2012:
As part of [an American] anti-propaganda tradition, the Smith-Mundt Act, the 1948 legislation (amended several times) which prohibits the domestic dissemination of some USG-produced propaganda (“information”) directed to foreign audiences, is still relevant today. To be sure, the Act could use fine-tuning to deal with the internet age and a globalized world. Americans today can easily find Voice of America news on the Internet. So, some say, forget about a 60+-year Cold War relic!
But this lack of coordinated control over propaganda activities by military and civilian agencies actually underscores a need, without censorship, to reinforce Smith-Mundt’s most important point — that a democratic government should not propagandize its own people, as was the case with totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and as is true of today’s mainland China.” MORE in “The real problem with the Modernized Smith-Mundt Act: its ‘zero effect on the CIA or the Pentagon‘,” by John Brown, John Brown’s Notes and Essays, July 18, 2013.
List of relevant articles:
“U.S. International Broadcasting Finally Accessible for Americans,” Helle Dale, The Foundry, July 23, 2013.
“Mission impossible – Is government broadcasting irrelevant?” by Gary Thomas, Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2013.
“Propaganda? No. Bringing ‘Voice of America’ To America Is Good for Transparency” by Josh Stearns, PBS.org, Media Shift, July 23, 2013.
“The Case for American Propaganda – Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos” by Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy, July 17, 2013.
“The real problem with the Modernized Smith-Mundt Act: its ‘zero effect on the CIA or the Pentagon‘,” by John Brown, John Brown’s Notes and Essays, July 18, 2013.
“Big Brother Speaks!” by Lester & Charlie, The Huffington Post, July 19, 2013.
“Taxpayer money at work: US-funded foreign broadcasts finally available in the US” by Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News, July 20, 2013.
“Op-Ed: I’m not afraid of Voice of America news in the US, but . . .,” by Ted Lipien, Digital Journal, July 15, 2013.