BBG Watch Commentary
The Daily Beast article, “The Story Behind That Incredibly Riveting Video of the D.C. Car Chase,” got it wrong.
In describing how “the guy who captured the dramatic scene wasn’t just some dude—he’s a cameraman for a network called Alhurra, funded by U.S. taxpayers and broadcast in the Middle East,” the reporter wrote:
“Unlike Al Jazeera, which just launched an American channel, Alhurra is totally unavailable in the United States—-and not just because there isn’t the demand. Because it’s totally funded by the government, Alhurra is considered propaganda, which means it’s forbidden to broadcast domestically under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. This same prohibition applies to all other networks funded by Broadcasting Board of Governors.”
ABC News got in right in this story:
“Up until this July, a 1948 law known as the Smith-Mundt Act prohibited government-funded news services that were designed to provide news to a foreign audience, like those that fall under the BBG’s umbrella, from broadcasting domestically. The recent passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act eases that restriction, but the BBG says it still is authorized only to create programs for foreign audiences and the BBG ‘does not seek to change that.’
Like other U.S. government-funded foreign news programs, Alhurra was spared from the government shutdown that has halted countless federal services.”
This information is wrong. The Smith-Mundt Act was modified in 2012 (The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012) and since earlier this year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including Alhurra, the Voice of America and others can legally distribute its news in the United States if asked by U.S. media or anybody else.
The question The Daily Beast reporter should have asked was whether Alhurra was asked for the video or volunteered to give it to commercial U.S. media.
Providing the video to domestic U.S. media without being asked for it could be a violation of even the current law, especially if it was done on orders of higher-level U.S. government officials. But, in our view, Alhurra journalists could hardly be blamed for wanting to share with their media colleagues such hot news video.
Even a good reason for sharing the video, however, does not completely eliminate the controversy or any potential public relations damage to these broadcasters who have a very important media freedom mission overseas.
Government bureaucrats, mostly officials of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), who had pushed enthusiastically for the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act, did not think about long-term damaging effect of the changes they had proposed to their own mission of serving news to overseas audiences that lack access to free media. They also did not thank how their proposed change in the law might affect both support and funding for their federal agency from American taxpayers.
It must be pointed out that Alhurra, VOA and other BBG-employeed journalists have no desire to engage in domestic or even internationally-targeted propaganda. They are superb professionals.
It is their bosses — some of the worst managers in the federal government, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) — who have exposed Alhurra, VOA and other BBG-employed journalists to these unfounded accusations. These officials have undermined U.S. domestic support for the BBG’s international media freedom mission, as seen by The Daily Beast article and many other U.S. media reports.
The modification of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which the IBB bureaucrats mindlessly pushed for in Congress without taking any precautions against negative U.S. domestic media publicity and domestic political backlash, is now being questioned and criticized. The fear is that it will continue to be a topic of domestic political controversy in the future. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 protected the BBG and its journalists from most of these U.S. domestic political controversies in the past.
The nature of the controversy was best described by a former Foreign Service Officer Dr. John H. Brown who now teaches courses of public diplomacy at Georgetown University and publishes a blog on issues of public diplomacy and propaganda. Dr. Brown posed a number of questions about the Alhurra video which clearly outline the problems and the controversy with the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 and the recent news incident in Washington.
Alhurra Network Caught D.C. Car Chase on Camera – Alana Abramson, ABC NewsThe historical importance of this tragic event (see … [insert for] full article), from a media perspective, should not be underestimated. This (to the best of my limited knowledge) is the first “breaking news” in recent memory directed to the USA about the USA that was covered by the U.S. MSM via footage from a USG-funded TV station (some would say propaganda station) originally established to “communicate” to foreign, rather than American audiences.When will other “breaking news” be provided by a USG-funded media outlet rather than directly by private news organizations to the American viewing public about events in the United States (granted, with some information obtained through official USG sources, but not through USG “propaganda” broadcasts, no matter how “benign”) ?–John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith, the founder of the BBC.
JB Notes/questions:(1)Why/how was the coverage by the Alhurra”exclusive?” (granted, the USG “indirectly” funds it). Copyright lawyers: Please enlighten me.(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. They probably got it confused with Al Jazeera.(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 government TV station (granted, only in part) left me quite concerned about the future of media freedom in the “homeland.”(5) According to a high-ranking VOA employee, apparently “the largest single market for VOA’s Somali program is — Minneapolis!” Was having such a large (granted “niche”) domestic audience the purpose of VOA’s programs, intended for international listeners.(6) Perhaps unintentionally, but the USG is “hidding” 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.
This is not the only mess the bureaucrats of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau have gotten the agency into recently and in the past.
The latest scandal is that despite the government shutdown and the furlough of about 40 percent of its workforce, IBB and Voice of America officials have proposed sending nine top executives to an international Internet conference in Paris in December.
These bureaucrats simply don’t get it.
BBG Watch has learned that the new BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and some of the members of the bipartisan oversight BBG board are trying to either cancel the trip or to limit the number of participates traveling to Paris before Christmas at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.
These IBB and VOA government officials have developed an unhealthy habit of embarrassing themselves, their oversight board, and BBG-employed journalists who try to do their jobs under very difficult conditions in a federal agency described by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as being “dysfunctional” and “defunct.”
It will be up to Jeff Shell, three new BBG members — Matt Armstrong, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Kenneth Weinstein — and two members who have been on the board for some time — Susan McCue and Michael Meehan — to reform the bureaucracy and to steer the agency clear of future controversies so it can focus on its media freedom mission overseas.
READ: New BBG Chairman Reportedly Told Top IBB and VOA Officials to Cancel Planned Trip to Paris, BBG Watch, October 4, 2013.