BBG Watch Commentary

Foreign Policy magazine published in its online National Security section an article written by Prof. Rosa Brooks that reads almost like one of government press releases put out by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a federal bureaucracy in charge of  managing Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts for overseas audiences and since recently also for audiences in the United States thanks to a change in the so-called domestic propaganda ban law, the Smith-Mundt Act which was replaced with the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

Prof. Brooks’ article is

The Case for American Propaganda

Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.

Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy, July 17, 2013.

Also see:

U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans

John Hudson, The Cable, Foreign Policy, July 14, 2013.

Prof. Brooks’ bio on the Foreign Policy website says that “she is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. From April 2009 to July 2011, she served as Counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy at the U.S. Department of Defense.”

In her article, Prof. Brooks makes the following claims and assertions:

“The irony, of course, is that, just as the government is likely to use our Internet data more responsibly than the private sector, the “government propaganda” that will supposedly flood the country as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is produced to a markedly higher journalistic standard than most of what passes for news here in the United States.”

Prof. Brooks may not know that journalistic standards at the Voice of America have deteriorated seriously due to bad management and diversion of resources away from news reporting to supporting a large and growing bureaucracy.

“In an era in which U.S. media outlets have radically cut back on overseas bureaus and foreign coverage, do we really need to “protect” American audiences from these shows?”

Prof. Brooks may not know that the management in charge of the Voice America has done exactly the same thing.

“Prior to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, Somalis in Somalia could watch and listen to BBG-produced shows critically discussing Somalia’s Al Shabab terrorist group, but when Somali-American radio stations wanted permission to re-broadcast the same shows in Minneapolis, the official answer had to be: “Sorry, no, you can’t do that.”

This assertion is simply inaccurate and plain wrong. There were no restrictions on American media before the passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act on rebroadcasting Voice of America programs within the United States if they could obtain these programs on their own, for example from the Internet, where they were and are available.

Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director, posted a comment under the article. In his comment he points out some of the inaccurate and misleading information being put out by U.S. government officials within IBB.

In his earlier articles in Digital Journal, “Op-Ed: I’m not afraid of Voice of America news in the US, but . . .” and “Op-Ed: US propaganda ban overturned with help of government propaganda,” he argued that the negative press publicity in the United States to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is eroding Voice of America’s identity as being focused on countries without free media, as well as its good reputation and bipartisan support for its funding.

I am sorry to say that Ms. Brooks has become one of the latest victims of propaganda which is being put out by government officials in charge of U.S. international broadcasts to deceive American public about the Smith-Mundt Act and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

The article reads like a government press release and is full of misleading information.

It is not true that before the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was passed, Americans, other residents in the United States and American media outlets could not access, use and rebroadcast Voice of America (VOA) programs. They were able to do all of this before. It was perfectly legal. There were no restrictions on the domestic use of VOA broadcasts.

The story about an ethnic Somali station in Minnesota is also largely wrong and misleading. The station was not prevented by the previous law from finding on its own and rebroadcasting VOA Somali programs. The station could have found those programs, including audio, on the Internet or even on satellite TV audio channels.

Any citizen or resident in the United States could have accessed VOA programs on the Internet, used, republished and rebroadcast them without any restrictions.

The only thing that U.S. government officials could not do before was to assist in providing these programs to Americans who may have asked for them.

Ms. Brooks categorical statement in the form of a quote, “you still can’t rebroadcast it” (VOA Somali programs before the law was modified) is completely inaccurate and misleading. The station could have rebroadcast Somali programs, from the Internet, for example. Any American could. Some ethnic stations in the United States did (rebroadcast such programs) before the law was changed to give government officials new powers to market news to Americans. That was the only change that has occurred.

Ms. Brooks has also not done her homework on what kind of government officials are in charge of these programs, how they treat their own journalists and critics, and what kind of news programs they produce.

Long before the law was changed, Americans were already highly critical of the management of U.S. international broadcasts, and even former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the government agency in charge “dysfunctional” and “defunct.” Those Americans who care about U.S. international broadcasting knew exactly what was happening. They could already follow every program on the Internet.

The new law is not going to make much difference how Americans see these programs and how government officials behave unless they are replaced. When Russian and American experts pointed out last year that the Voice of America Russian website has developed a “pro-Putin bias,” the VOA Public Relations Office attacked in U.S. media their professional reputation.

When Gary Thomas, a former, retired senior Voice of America correspondent with 27 years of VOA reporting experience from hotspots such as Afghanistan submitted questions to to the VOA management for an article he was writing for Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Voice of America accused him of biased and refused to answer his questions. When the article was published recently, the VOA Public Relations Office attacked his professional skills and accused him of errors, still unspecified, which it earlier had refused to address by refusing to answer questions.

A member of the Voice of America’s bipartisan board, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, apologized to the reporter and CJR. BBG members had no idea that a journalist would be treated this way by VOA. Ashe said that repressive regimes also refuse to answer questions from journalists. VOA is supposed to be a champion of freedom of the press.

If Ms. Brooks or anybody else is curious how managers in charge of U.S. broadcasts treat journalists they still employ, they should go to the BBG employee union website, AFGE Local 1812. If they are curious how government officials treat other journalists who annoy them, they should Google search for Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press, and the UN. He (Matthew Russell Lee) is an independent American journalist whom a government official in charge of VOA broadcasts tried to ban from covering the UN as an accredited correspondent.

Ms. Brooks could have also learned that executives and managers in charge of U.S. broadcasts have been rated consistently in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVP) as being the worst managers in the entire federal government and responsible for the lowest employee morale. Google for “worst place to work for in the government” and see what you get.

If anybody is curious about why Hillary Clinton said that these programs were “defunct,” they should check out a watchdog website BBG Watch. In terms of audience engagement through social media, Russia Today, Al Jazeera and BBC can get tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets, Google+ and readers’ comments to barely a few dozen for top seven news stories on the VOA English website.

There is probably the reason government officials wanted to get the power to distribute programs to Americans. They could not claim that (domestic) audience before, but they can do it now. They were doing very poorly abroad before because of bad management. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will allow them to even further neglect their overseas mission.

I’m afraid that Ms. Brooks was talking to government officials in charge of U.S. broadcasts and bought their misleading propaganda line. I am far less willing (than she is) to trust government bureaucrats who refuse to answer questions from journalists they don’t like, try to get their press credentials revoked, allow “pro-Putin” bias to seep into Voice of America Russian programs, mistreat their employees, and put out deceiving and misleading information about the so-called propaganda ban in the Smith-Mundt Act.

I’m also disappointed that Foreign Policy, a publication I greatly respect, would publish (something that) amounts to a government agency press release. As an independent journalist, blogger myself and a former Voice of America acting associate director, I find Ms. Brooks comment, “Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.” quite amusing in light of what I saw in her own article.

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