BBG Watch Commentary
One of our readers left a comment for an earlier post, in which he points out that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its executive staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) had no strategy on how to deal with the avalanche of negative media publicity and comments from irate taxpayers in response to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, the passage of which agency officials had worked hard to accomplish in the U.S. Congress and succeeded.
Big Brother Speaks!, Lester & Charlie, Huff Post Comedy, July 19, 2013.
Taxpayer money at work: US-funded foreign broadcasts finally available in the US, Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News, July 20, 2013.
Another way to waste our tax dollars.
Aztlan: “I wish they were spending their own money.”
With sequestration and furloughs going, I think this is irresponsible.
IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, who in 2011, served as the chief of staff to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), was not the only U.S. official who had shown little concern about public relations, political fallout and future funding implications of the proposed lifting of the Smith-Mundt restrictions, but at the time as well as now he was and is responsible for advising BBG members on such issues. There has clearly been a major failure with potentially an immense political impact on U.S. international broadcasting.
“When you have reporters and bloggers making fun of you in pictures and in print, you know you’ve made a huge PR blunder,” one international broadcasting and public diplomacy expert observed.
The original Smith-Mundt Act and later amendments were passed not only to prevent a largely theoretical threat of domestic government-generated propaganda but also to make sure that government-funded media would not compete with domestic American media and that operations of the State Department and U.S. international broadcasting would not become politicized and would continue to enjoy bipartisan support.
A Google search has shown that as early as 2011, IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, then the chief of staff for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was selling the idea to various groups in the U.S. of changing the original Smith-Mundt Act by removing the restriction on active domestic dissemination of U.S. government-funded news programs.
It appears that at that time neither Trimble nor other U.S. officials and outside experts expressed any concerns about the political impact that the change in the law might have on:
1. How U.S. and international media would report on it?
2. What damage unfair accusations of government propaganda might do to the reputation of the Voice of America and its journalists?
3. How negative media publicity might undermine bipartisan public support for U.S. international broadcasting?
4. How a change in the law might make Americans irate that their tax dollars may be used to “propagandize” them?
Neither Jeff Trimble nor any other proponent of modifying the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions raised the issue of the new law becoming a target of intense partisan criticism, not just from the right but also from the left of the political spectrum. In fact, the change in the law raised serious concerns among all political factions and united them in a manner of speaking against U.S. international broadcasting.
The fact that IBB officials were unable to anticipate the controversy is simply amazing, but then they had not anticipated many other crises and gave wrong advice to the BBG board on almost all major issues: China, Tibet, Radio Liberty firings in Russia, illegal RIFs at OCB, poor employee morale, elimination of news reporting positions at VOA. The list goes on and on. They also purposely have mislead BBG members on many issues, starting with claims of spectacular yet largely non-existent audience engagement through social media.
But on the Smith-Mundt issue, no one warned that U.S. international broadcasting could become a target of uncalled for and unneeded partisan attacks or that USIB funding or even future could be at risk because of a controversy that has very little to do with its mission.
Needless to say, the International Broadcasting Bureau did not anticipate the storm, did not warn BBG members and did not prepare for the fallout.
As one example, “This law allows the federal government to have sweeping power to push television, radio, newspaper and social-media propaganda onto the U.S. public,” warns Michael Evans of America’s Voice Now. Similar views are being expressed all over the blogosphere and in publications such as The Huffington Post, Wonkette, Foreign Policy, and NBC News Blog.
Some of the recent reports are included in The John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Review.
Both mainstream media and partisan bloggers are very similar in their negative reporting on this issue. Readers’ comments posted online run more than 90 percent against the lifting of the propaganda restrictions. Many of the articles and posts are wrong on some key facts and make some unfounded charges, but the general tone is one of outrage or at least strong opposition to the measure and questioning the government’s motives. Many posts make fun of explanations being provided by spokespersons from IBB. As it is their usual practice when a crisis develops, top IBB officials are keeping a low profile.
If the law absolutely had to be modified — and there is a serious doubt that there was such a need except to give bureaucrats and their contractors something more to do — IBB failed to work with Congress on getting the law changed in such a way that it would not become controversial among most Americans, for example by simply making it clear that all BBG-generated material is in the public domain and can be accessed by those who want it not only through the Internet, where it was already available before, but also through an NGO that would be independent from the administration.
First, a comment from a BBG Watch reader, followed by various reports on what current IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble and others had to say as they were planning to work on getting the U.S. Congress to remove the propaganda ban restrictions in the old Smith-Mundt Act.
COMMENT FROM BBG WATCH READER: “At this point, a major question every rank and file employee at BBG should be asking of management, including the PR operations of the BBG and IBB, is what was the strategy and thinking ahead of the Smith Mundt provisions “update” to deal with what is now clearly an avalanche of negative reaction from across America to this move?
Was there a strategy? Did it boil down essentially to dismissing concerns (as the BBG communications director Weil has done) and merely saying that finally Americans would be able to more easily see the good work that their public diplomacy . . . sorry, dedicated U.S. government-funded journalists have been doing in the messianic mission of promoting freedom and democracy?
Was whatever strategy existed clearly communicated to VOA and other employees, or discussed at any point? It doesn’t seem so.
Well, all of this is water under the bridge at this point. As he travels around the country merrily singing the praises of VOA, David Ensor now faces even more of an uphill battle as he will no doubt face additional questions about all of this, no doubt along the lines of this comment posted on the NBC account of the Smith Mundt issue:
COMMENTS FROM NBC NEWS WEBSITE for a report: “Taxpayer money at work: US-funded foreign broadcasts finally available in the US” by Elizabeth Chuck, July 20, 2013. These comments from irate taxpayers are typical for this article and hundreds of others that have appeared in mainstream media publications and in blogs:
they do good work from what I’ve seen. I use voa online but my concern is the cost – $752 MILLION?!? did I read that right? uh fellas, can we lower that down a Romney or two? hoe about $300 million and I’ll spring for breakfast?
$752.7 million bucks, DOWN THE DRAIN I THINK!!!
Never heard of it and never knew my tax dollars were headed here….Geeez, like we can afford it.”
The following information on how officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the International Broadcasting Bureau were planning to deal with the Smith-Mundt Act issue was found in the Staff Report on the Public Meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, July 12, 2011. The report is available online.
Matt Armstrong, the then Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, is one one of two of President Obama’s new Republican nominees to serve on the BBG board. The other Republican nominee is former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They are both awaiting Senate confirmation.
The U.S Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy convened a public meeting at the Capitol Visitor Center on July 12, 2011, to discuss the impact of the Smith-Mundt Act and legitimate efforts by the U.S. Government to understand, inform, and influence global publics.
Public Law 80-402: the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, as amended, commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act, is the foundational authorization for much of the public diplomacy activities of the U.S. Department of State. The Fulbright Amendment of 1972 and the Zorinsky Amendment of 1985 significantly altered the original prohibition on domestic dissemination to a prohibition on domestic access to material distributed abroad by the U.S. Information Agency, a prohibition inherited by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the State Department when the USIA was abolished. The impact of the restriction and the potential impact of removing the restriction have been debated for years and were discussed in detail during this meeting.
Panelists for the meeting included Jeff Trimble, Executive Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors; Dr. Chris Paul, a social scientist from RAND Corporation; and Andrew Cedar, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
The purpose of this Staff Report is to provide a summary and objective analysis of the meeting. Additionally, this Staff Report is intended to identify specific challenges and unanswered questions for further discussion for the purpose of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. public diplomacy and similar activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics.
Analysis of Panel Discussions
Matt Armstrong, Exec. Dir., U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
Mr. Armstrong opened the panel discussion by commenting that traditional boundaries to communication including ―…language, geography, time, culture, ethnicity… …have virtually disappeared…‖ and that continued emphasis on those boundaries inhibits America’s ability to engage in the evolving communication environment and hinders public understanding of foreign policy, public diplomacy, and interferes with Americans’ understanding of U.S. activities around the world – all of which ―…essentially [surrenders] much of the narrative to others.‖
Jeff Trimble, Executive Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors
Jeff Trimble, Executive Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors, stated that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has drafted and received administrative approval for an amendment to Smith-Mundt which was recently transmitted to Congress. The proposed amendment would establish ―…thtaSection 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act – that’s the domestic dissemination ban – and the Zorinksy Amendment are not applicable to the programming carried out by the…‖ BBG.
Trimble explained that U.S. international broadcasting operates within established journalistic standards pursuant to its legal obligations and, while the ―…opportunity to be heard and read by U.S. audiences is desirable…‖, BBG does not aspire to compete against U.S. media or develop products for U.S. markets and ―…would not actively market its programs in the U.S. nor produce targeted programming. However, Trimble also pointed out that the dissemination ban was implemented at a time when ―…media sources were limited and programming more easily directed to target audiences…‖ and noted that evolution of the Internet and digital technology render the ban anachronistic and ―…impossible to enforce.
In essence, Trimble asserted that while BBG’s mission to reach overseas audiences endures it is simply no longer possible to deliver products to foreign publics that do not also reach American consumers. He further pointed out that U.S. media outlets increasingly seek access to BBG video or other content as sources for their own stories, particularly as their own overseas news gathering assets diminish.
According to Trimble, compliance with legal prohibitions can be maintained in spirit by limiting ―inadvertent domestic distribution‖ of BBG products, but the law does inhibit the ability to reach desired foreign expatriate audiences within the United States and is regularly – though inadvertently – violated by civilian media organizations when they incorporate publically accessible BBG products into their own programming. Consequently, BBG products cannot intentionally be used in ways that would (1) reach ideal publics, and (2) maximize efficient use of U.S. taxpayer dollars. In short, according to Trimble, Smith-Mundt puts a chill on efforts to promote desirable global engagement.
JEFF TRIMBLE: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I’m happy to do so and very pleased to be here today representing Broadcasting Board of Governors and to share with you our perspective on Smith-Mundt. And by that, to be precise, we’re referring to Section 501 of the United States Information and Educational Act of 1948, which we refer to as Smith-Mundt, and Section 208 of Public Law 99-93, referred to as the Zorinsky amendment. The Board, let me just say, welcomes its continuing, ongoing interaction with the Commission and looks forward to continued cooperation with you all.
As you know, BBG – but let me say, just for the sake of those in audience who don’t know us – is the independent federal agency that encompasses all civilian U.S. international broadcasting, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where I worked for ten years, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East broadcasting networks, which are Radio Sawa and Alhurra television in Arabic. Our broadcasters distribute programming in 59 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 160 million people around the world via radio, TV, the Internet and other new media.
Well, first, the headline. The BBG has drafted and received administration approval of an amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act, which we have recently transmitted to the Congress. We’re only in the beginning stages of consultations with Congress to discuss the administration’s proposal, but we can share with you what the administration has proposed. And it’s very brief.
The provision, the amendment does the following: It establishes that Section 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act – that’s the domestic dissemination ban – and the Zorinsky amendment are not applicable to the programming carried out by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, full stop. So Smith-Mundt, again, barred State – USIA, the United States Information Agency, from disseminating its program material in the U.S., and the Zorinsky amendment, a corollary provision adopted in the FY ’86, ’87 authorization process, provides that, quote, “no funds authorized to be appropriated to the USIA shall be used to influence public opinion in the U.S. and no program material prepared by the USIA shall be distributed within the U.S.” So this is a specific action by this administration, legislation proposed by BBG, that is on the Hill at this time. And very – we’re very hoping that there’ll be action on this.
In a global media environment where our stories go viral, where they’re picked up by media competitors, by aggregators and often are played back to the U.S. public, we really believe a new examination of Smith-Mundt is in order. The ban was adopted at a time when media sources were limited and programming was more easily directed to target audiences. Today, the Internet and other digital technology make the ban an anachronism that is impossible to enforce.
So decades ago, while we broadcast mostly on shortwave targeted to the Soviet Union and other places around the world, today, while we continue broadcasting on these legacy technologies where it’s appropriate to do so, we deliver programming through our website and we direct our programming towards sites such as YouTube and Facebook to ensure that our content is on the media tools that people look at every day. So when targeting an overseas audience on these sites, we also reach a U.S. audience. Similarly, placing our programming on broad satellite distribution network makes Voice of America and other programming available within this country.
We have no choice: BBG must be on satellite radio and television and web-based platforms where people around the world increasingly seek information. In seeking significant audiences, the BBG cannot limit its distribution to safe technologies that would guarantee or ensure compliance with the spirit or letter of Smith-Mundt.
Therefore, we’ve argued that any domestic audiences for programming provided over these media are inadvertent up to now and, therefore, not in violation of the Smith-Mundt statute. This opinion tracks specific language in the Television Broadcasting Act to Cuba, which states, “with respect to the dissemination in the U.S. of information prepared for dissemination abroad to the extent such dissemination is inadvertent, the BBG shall provide for the open communication of information and ideas.”
Nevertheless, so you know, our agency has consulted with Congress on a number of instances where new technology would make BBG programming available in parts of the U.S. or to certain markets in the U.S. And I’ll give two quick examples. In seeking to enhance the availability of TV Marti in Cuba, the BBG sought placement on a DIRECTV satellite channel that had limited availability to subscribers in the Miami area, so it is available there. Second, in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Haiti last year, BBG worked with Sirius satellite radio on a proposal to make VOA Creole-language products available on radios to be donated by Sirius to Haitian citizens. The channel assigned could, of course, be heard also by users of Sirius radio in the U.S. In both cases, consultations with Congress resulted in agreement that the inadvertent domestic distribution should not stop the enhanced transmission efforts.
So as media companies and organizations become truly global and their audiences virtually unlimited, the challenge to comply with Smith-Mundt becomes increasingly daunting. In addition, the cautions and concerns reflected by Smith-Mundt seem less relevant in the increasingly burgeoning media environment here in the United States. The number and quality of media voices here argue that another voice available in this rich mix would not wield undue influence, nor would it compete with U.S. media.
U.S. international broadcasting operates under strict journalistic standards pursuant to its legal requirement to be conducted according to the highest standards of broadcast journalism. We are not propagandists.
U.S. international broadcasting would continue to produce programming for the benefit of audiences overseas, not specifically for the American people who have myriad sources of news and information. BBG does not aspire to compete against U.S. media or develop products for U.S. markets. The opportunity to be seen, heard and read by U.S. audiences is desirable; however, the agency would not actively market its programs in the U.S. nor produce targeted programming.
I should point out that the U.S. International Broadcasting Act, our founding legislation, provides no authorization for the production of programming for U.S. audiences. So while there’s a ban on disseminating, there’s not explicit authorization to produce it. So absent that authorization, our mission would remain the same: to reach overseas audiences.
It is the case that U.S. media outlets, increasingly, are seeking access to BBG video or other content as sources for their own stories because we have it available. This is especially true as our media have drawn back their overseas news gathering assets.
I should mention, and Matt has touched on this, that an important potential audience for U.S. international broadcasting has been missing in its efforts to reach audiences in their vernacular languages. And these are the expatriate and émigré communities in the United States.
Matt referenced an article in Sunday’s Washington Post on the front page which specifically documents efforts by an individual to reach out to the Somali-speaking community in Minneapolis to ensure that they have accurate information and to prevent them from being potentially targeted and recruited by al-Shabab to engage in extremism and even, conceivably, acts of terrorism. It is the case that a Somali-language FM radio reached out to us a couple of years ago from Minneapolis and asked us for Voice of America’s Somali-language programming to put on the air to reach exactly this community, and we were unable to provide that programming because of the Smith-Mundt ban.
I can’t ensure that they aren’t taking that programming off the – off the VOA’s website and putting it on the air in any case, and that gets to an enforcement issue, but we were not able explicitly to authorize them to use this content. Again, this would’ve cost us nothing; it would not have been an expense to the American taxpayers and would’ve contributed, in our view, to the exact efforts that are being described here in this Post article, to prevent extremism here in the United States.
Diaspora communities do access BBG programs over the Web. A couple of months, the NewsHour did a story on Parazit, the extremely popular Persian news network Voice of America television satire program for Iran, in which they profile a couple in McLean, Virginia, watching Parazit and chatting about it and calling their relatives in Iran to talk about the program. I don’t think the NewsHour folks had any idea that they were exposing a violation of Smith-Mundt, but that’s exactly what they did, and they were exposing exactly the kind of interaction between American Persian-speaking audiences and relatives and friends in Iran that we like to encourage with our broadcast and we feel that the ability to access our content readily in the United States would facilitate. Smith-Mundt presents a chill on any further efforts to promote this kind of global engagement.
In sum, a BBG exemption from Smith-Mundt would enhance program opportunities and effectiveness by eliminating questions about the availability of programming in the U.S. and the viability of programming to connect U.S. and foreign communities.
Plenty more to say on this issue, and I’d welcome any questions and discussion on it later in the – later in the session.
A full transcript of the discussion shows that with only one exception, the panelists did not raise any concerns on what impact the proposed lifting of the Smith-Mundt restrictions might have on U.S. domestic public opinion and future bipartisan support for U.S. international broadcasting.
Andrew Cedar, the then Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, did issue a mild warning, which the other panelists did not pick up on. But even he was fully supportive of efforts to get the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions lifted.
“Cedar identified two risks he sees at the forefront of people within the State Department. First, that Smith-Mundt is perceived ―…as the guarantor of protection for funding… ‘in that it specifically authorizes overseas communication which has over time been interpreted to mean those funds are not for domestic use. Second, that changes in Smith-Mundt would result in money being pulled back from overseas posts over time and dedicated to activities including domestic press work or used to influence decisions on which languages presidential speeches might be translated into based on domestic constituencies. He contended both risks are more a matter of internal decision-making and processes than a legislative matter – internal and political concerns – but are nonetheless very real, particularly for those who ―…lived through that walk over from USIA and are concerned about those things rearing their head again.’ “
The USC Center on Public Diplomacy reported on the July 12, 2011 U.S. Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy public meeting in Washington, DC and did not note any concerns with possible domestic U.S. media and public opinion backlash against the lifting of the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions and what impact it might have on future public support, bipartisan congressional support, or future funding for U.S. international broadcasting.
Reforming Smith-Mundt, Anna Dawson, PD News – CPD Blog, July 13, 2013.
This is a BBG press release that was issued on Jeff Trimble’s comments about the Smith-Mundt restrictions.
BBG Executive Director Jeff Trimble briefed the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy today about the Board’s position on Smith-Mundt, particularly seeking to repeal the ban on domestic dissemination of BBG broadcasts.
The meeting was held on the Hill and was an excellent opportunity to discuss the administration-backed amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act that was recently sent to Congress.
In a diverse media environment, adhering to Smith-Mundt is increasingly difficult. For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, BBG worked with Sirius satellite radio on a proposal to make VOA Creole products available on radios to be donated by Sirius to Haitian citizens. This required Congressional approval as these broadcasts were then also available to U.S. audiences although they were not targeted to them.
Trimble outlined the Board’s view that in a global media environment where U.S. international broadcasting stories go viral, are picked up by media competitors and aggregators, and often are played back to the U.S. public, a new examination of Smith-Mundt is very much in order.