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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

The Report of the 1967 United States Advisory Commission on Information

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Information was one of two oversight commissions established by the Public Law 402, otherwise known as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The other commission focused on cultural and educational exchange. Today, there is one commission, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, that does not have a legal obligation to produce annual reports and, according to Title 22, it “shall have no authority with respect to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board or the United States National Commission for UNESCO.”

Initially a twice-yearly report, the annual report was detailed and included specific recommendations. It was, and remains, a public report delivered to Congress. The 1967 report, available here, is noteworthy as “public diplomacy” was just coined and about to be pushed to the sidelines.

This report is also noteworthy to modern readers because the Commission’s members were respected professionals in the field of communications. They were not political appointees selected by their ability to influence Americans to donate money to a campaign.

The members of the 1967 Commission were:

  • Palmer Hoyt, Editor and Publisher, The Denver Post
  • Sigurd S. Larmon, former chairman of Young and Rubicam (1944-1962)
  • Morris. S. Novik, founder of National Association of Educational Broadcasters and Radio-Television Consultant
  • Frank Stanton, President, Columbia Broadcasting System

Among the report’s findings:

The tools of the past are often inadequate to the tasks of tomorrow. The problems facing the United States information, cultural and educational services are not the same as those of 20 years ago. USIA must match its mission. Periodic inventory taking is called for.

The Commission has identified continuing problems and new opportunities. It urges the USIA to take steps toward their solution. These include the needs to:

  • Develop greater stability and continuity (page 8).
  • Reexamine approaches to the underdeveloped areas (page 10).
  • Reassess USIA’s role in Vietnam (page 13).
  • Strengthen its cultural and education programs (page 14).
  • Establish a corporate memory (page 18).
  • Reinforce the training program (page 19).
  • Encourage discussion of policy problems, plans and programs (page 19).
  • Reestablish contacts with academic community (page 19). …

The Commission also draws the attention of the Congress to a set of recommendations exclusively within its jurisdiction. These include the needs to:

  • Create a statutory USIA Foreign Service, (page 21).
  • Permit domestic availability of USIA materials (page 22).
  • Finally, the Commission calls the attention of the Congress and the President to the need to provide increased appropriations (page 23).

If one word can be found to describe the single most critical challenge facing United States information programs abroad as we enter the final third of this century, that word is “change.” A longer word, but equally apt, is “transition”-the one used by the President of the United States in his State of the Union address on January 18, 1967. Ours, he said, is:

“A time of testing-yes. And a time of transition. The transition is sometimes slow; sometimes unpopular; almost always very painful-and often quite dangerous. But we have lived with danger for a long time before, and we shall live with it for a long time yet to come . … Let us remember that those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

From the section recommending domestic availability of USIA materials:

Public Law 402, which provides the basic authority for U.S. foreign information, cultural and educational programs, was passed in an atmosphere of Congressional suspicion and skepticism. Special concern was registered over the possibility that such programs might “propagandize” the American people if overseas products were to be made available in the United States. Congressional committees have reiterated the intent of Congress that USIA’s products not be distributed domestically. Indeed, previous members of this Commission have sustained and supported this view.

This Commission feels that, after almost two decades, the walls can come down. The time has come when the vigilance of Congress and the press may be relied upon to provide sufficient safeguard against partisanship and the promulgation of a particular Administration’s point of view. The American taxpayer should no longer be prohibited from seeing and studying the product a government agency produces with public funds for overseas audiences. Students in schools and colleges all over this country who are interested in government, foreign affairs and international relations should not be denied access to what the U.S. government is saying about itself and the rest of the world. The Commission recommends that the Congress effect the same “open door” policy on overseas-intended information materials as decreed by the “Freedom of Information” Act (the Moss Act, passed July 4, 1966) for domestically-based governmental operations.

In legal terms, the past prohibition against domestic distribution has been de facto rather than de jure. There is nothing in the statutes specifically forbidding making USIA materials available to American audiences. Rather, what began as caution has hardened into policy. But the law notwithstanding, so hoary a precedent is not lightly discarded. The sense of Congress was accessory to its creation, and the sense of Congress is essential to its demise.

(It is important to underscore that this Commission’s recommendation is addressed to “making available” USIA materials, not to promoting their domestic distribution. Distribution in this country should not be initiated by the USIA, but should be permitted in response to requests.)

The granting of specific authority by the Congress would have the effect of adding to the “free flow of information” that characterizes the Moss Act. It would bring to USIA the views, criticisms and suggestions of Americans concerning the Agency’s effort to keep the world well informed about the United States, its foreign policy objectives and the American people. It would encourage the development of a high quality product. It would serve to insure accurate and balanced treatment of the news. It would improve credibility overseas in demonstrating there is no curtain between what is released abroad and what is made available at home. Most important, it would satisfy the American people’s right to know what its government is saying to the world at large.

Download the 1967 Advisory Commission Report here.

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