For decades, a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S.government's mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to Americanaudiences. But on July 2, that came silently to an end with the implementationof a new reform passed in January. The result: an unleashing of thousands of hoursper week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S.consumption in a reform initially criticized as a green light for U.S. domesticpropaganda efforts. So what just happened?
Until this month, a vast ocean of U.S. programming produced bythe Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only beviewed or listened to at broadcast quality in foreign countries. Theprogramming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast: It's viewed inmore than 100 countries in 61 languages. The topics covered include human rightsabuses in Iran; self-immolation in Tibet; human trafficking across Asia; andon-the-ground reporting in Egypt and Iraq.
The restriction of these broadcasts was due to the Smith-MundtAct, a long standing piece of legislation that has been amended numerous timesover the years, perhaps most consequentially by Arkansas Senator J. WilliamFulbright. In the 70s, Fulbright was no friend of VOA and Radio Free Europe,and moved to restrict them from domestic distribution, saying they "should be given the opportunityto take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Fulbright'samendment to Smith-Mundt was bolstered in 1985 by Nebraska Senator Edward Zorinskywho argued that such "propaganda" should be kept out of America as to distinguish the U.S. "from the Soviet Unionwhere domestic propaganda is a principal government activity."
Zorinsky and Fulbright sold their amendments on sensiblerhetoric: American taxpayers shouldn't be funding propaganda for Americanaudiences. So did Congress just tear down the American public's last defenseagainst domestic propaganda?
BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil insists BBG is not a propagandaoutlet, and its flagship services such as VOA "present fair and accurate news."
"They don't shy away from stories that don't shed the bestlight on the United States," she told TheCable. She pointed to the charters of VOA and RFE: "Our journalistsprovide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible,discussion, and open debate."
A former U.S. government source with knowledge of the BBG saysthe organization is no Pravda, but itdoes advance U.S. interests in more subtle ways. In Somalia, for instance, VOAserves as counterprogramming to outlets peddling anti-American or jihadistsentiment. "Somalis have three options for news," the source said, "word ofmouth, Al-Shabaab or VOA Somalia."
This partially explains the push to allow BBG broadcasts onlocal radio stations in the United States. The agency wants to reach diasporacommunities, such as St. Paul Minnesota's significant Somali expat community. "Those people can getAl-Shabaab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn't get access to theirtaxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia," the source said. "It wassilly."
Lynne added that the reform has a transparency benefit as well."Now Americans will be able to know more about what they are paying for withtheir tax dollars - greater transparency is a win-win for all involved," she said.And so with that we have the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, whichpassed as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, and went intoeffect this month.
But if anyone needed a reminder of the dangers of domesticpropaganda efforts, the past 12 months provided ample reasons. Last year, two USA Today journalists were ensnared in a propaganda campaign afterreporting about millions of dollars in back taxes owed by the Pentagon's toppropaganda contractor in Afghanistan. Eventually, one of the co-owners of thefirm confessed to creating phony websites andTwitter accounts to smear the journalists anonymously. Additionally, just thismonth, The Washington Post exposed a counter propaganda program by the Pentagonthat recommended posting comments on a U.S. website run by a Somali expat withreaders opposing Al-Shabaab. "Today, the military is more focused onmanipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, byposting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership," reported The Post.
But for BBG officials, the references to Pentagon propagandaefforts are nauseating, particularly because the Smith-Mundt Act never hadanything to do with regulating the Pentagon, a fact that was misunderstood inmedia reports in the run-up to the passage of new Smith-Mundt reforms inJanuary.
One example included a report by the late Buzzfeed reporter MichaelHastings, who suggested that the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act would open thedoor to Pentagon propaganda of U.S. audiences. In fact, as amended in 1987, the act only covers portions of the State Departmentengaged in public diplomacy abroad (i.e. the public diplomacy section of the"R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)
But the news circulated regardless, much to the displeasure ofRep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), a sponsor of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of2012. "To me, it's a fascinating case study in how one blogger was prettysloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico's Playbook, and you had onelevel of sloppiness on top of another," Thornberry toldThe Cable last May. "And once something sensational gets out there,it just spreads like wildfire."
That of course doesn't leave the BBG off the hook if itscontent smacks of agitprop. But now that its materials are allowed to bebroadcast by local radio stations and TV networks, they won't be a completemystery to Americans. "Previously, the legislation had the effect of cloudingand hiding this stuff," the former U.S. official told The Cable. "Now we'll have a better sense: Gee some of this stuffis really good. Or gee some of this stuff is really bad. At least we'll know now."