The US government has a bit of a PR problem at the moment, thanks to Ed Snowden's leaks and a decade-plus of general antipathy towards its constituents' rights and liberties growing out of its War on Terror.
Fortunately, the government now has a chance to aim its official version of today's news at US citizens, thanks to the repeal of a so-called "anti-propaganda" law earlier this month.
For decades, a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government's mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But on July 2, that came silently to an end with the implementation of a new reform passed in January. The result: an unleashing of thousands of hours per 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. domestic propaganda efforts.The Broadcast Board of Governors, which produces programming like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, has been prevented from aiming its programming at Americans since the 1970's when the Smith-Mundt Act (which authorized the State Dept. to communicate with foreign audiences via many methods, radio being one of them) was amended to prohibit domestic dissemination of the BBG's broadcasts. This was done to distance the State Department's efforts from the internal propaganda machine operated by the Soviet Union.
Now, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (part of the National Defense Authorization Act) has repealed the domestic prohibition, allowing the government's broadcasting to be directed at/created for Americans for the first time in over 40 years.
BBG spokesperson Lynne Weil says these efforts aren't simply pro-government hype machines.
"They don't shy away from stories that don't shed the best light on the United States," she told The Cable. She pointed to the charters of VOA and RFE: "Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible, discussion, and open debate."
A former U.S. government source with knowledge of the BBG says the organization is no Pravda, but it does advance U.S. interests in more subtle ways. In Somalia, for instance, VOA serves as counterprogramming to outlets peddling anti-American or jihadist sentiment. "Somalis have three options for news," the source said, "word of mouth, Al-Shabaab or VOA Somalia."As Weil points out, this will bring a new level of transparency to the BBG as communicating to Americans is no longer prohibited. If nothing else, transcripts of BBG programming will be easier for Americans to get ahold of. A court ruled in 1998 that the limitations of the Smith-Mundt Act exempted the Voice of America from releasing transcripts in response to FOIA requests.
Another possible plus is the fact that the BBG will provide a free, "local" news source for immigrant populations.
The agency wants to reach diaspora communities, such as St. Paul Minnesota's significant Somali expat community. "Those people can get Al-Shabaab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn't get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia," the source said.These positives aside, the thought of a state-run news agency being allowed to direct its efforts at Americans is still uncomfortable. Despite claims of independence, it's hard to believe the source is 100% trustworthy when its stated purpose is to run flack for the State Department in foreign nations. (Of course, the mainstream media outlets haven't shown much reluctance to regurgitate talking points, which almost makes the BBG's efforts seem redundant.)
While the BBG may provide a less-biased source of news for many foreigners (or at least provide a different bias), the purpose of its broadcasts to its new American audience is less clear. The fact that the State Department is behind the effort doesn't do much to allay fears that the BBG will become a tool of domestic propaganda. The State Department's reaction to the leak of diplomatic correspondence by Wikileaks was to block its employees' access to the site (or any site containing the word "Wikileaks") and demand the digital documents be "returned." How will a state-run press react to developments like these? Will it be forced to play by the department's rules, no matter how illogical, or will it be able to deal with them in a more forthright manner?
In a time where the administration seems to be forced to play defense with increasing frequency, it's hard to believe it won't be willing to exploit this addition to its PR arsenal.