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Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

Updated February 19, 2015. Originally published December 24, 2008.

This 1953 Journalism Quarterly article by Burton Paulu entitled “Smith-Mundt Act- A legislative history” (3.7mb PDF) is a good read for anyone interested in the subject of public diplomacy, including exchanges of all kinds and international media, and the Smith-Mundt Act. It is an interesting contemporary overview of the debates over ‘public diplomacy’ immediately prior to the establishment of the United States Information Agency. The support from State for these activities had waned considerably and several former supporters of empowering State with these tools were beginning to reconsider whether the Department was capable of effectively running these programs. The debates Mr. Paulu describes have a striking resemblance to modern discussions, particularly those between 9/11 and 2010.

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When do we start the honest debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act?

Read my post this morning at the Public Diplomacy Council website about the lack of serious debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

What is it about U.S. public diplomacy that we must hide it from Americans? Is it so abhorrent that it would embarrass the taxpayer, upset the Congress (which has surprisingly little additional insight on the details of public diplomacy), or upend our democracy? Of our international broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, do we fear the content to be so persuasive and compelling that we dare not permit the American media, academia, nor the Congress, let alone the mere layperson, to have the right over oversight to hold accountable their government? [Read the rest here]

Also, be sure to see Josh Rogin’s Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’.

If you are attending the event at the Heritage Foundation today, “Understanding the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act,” at 3p ET (apparently it will be webcast), and you’re on the fence or opposed to the availability of State Department public diplomacy material domestically, would you be so kind as to provide examples from the field of what Americans should not know about?

And, if you are attending that Heritage event today, do read my post at the Public Diplomacy Council website, particularly the paragraph about the difference between access and dissemination, existing language in the law to promote the free flow of information outside Government control, and whether State should have separate coverage from the BBG.

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 introduced in the House

Last week, Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced a bill to amend the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 to “authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes.” The bill, H.R.5736 — Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (Introduced in House – IH), removes the prohibition on public diplomacy material from being available to people within the United States and thus eliminates an artificial handicap to U.S. global engagement while creating domestic awareness of international affairs and oversight and accountability of the same. This bill also specifies Smith-Mundt only applies to the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, eliminating an ambiguity creatively imagined sometime over the three decades.

(see the FAQ on Smith-Mundt and the Modernization Act here)

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Freedom of and to information and public confidence

On March 28, 2012, Gallup and the BBG will discuss how the world’s populations perceive media freedom within their countries and citizens’ confidence in their media.

The one-hour public meeting starts at 10:00am at the Gallup building at 901 F Street, NW, Washington, DC.  RSVP at this link.

Featured will be BBG Governor Michael Meehan, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, BBG Director of Strategy and Director Bruce Sherman, and Gallup Research Consultant Cynthia English.

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How Congress Violated the First Amendment and Got Away With It

By Alex Belida

When I worked at Voice of America, the flagship U.S. international media operation, the biggest legal problems I heard senior managers wring their hands over were possible violations of an obscure 1948 law known as the Smith-Mundt Act.

This isn’t one of those comic regulations, like “it is illegal to wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in a church.”

In fact this one is pretty serious for a news organization. It states “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.” 

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Blind Ambition

When the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) recently unveiled a new Strategic Plan, it set a brazenly ambitious goal: “To become the world’s leading international news agency by 2016.”

But based on its latest budget proposal, global news organizations like Reuters and AP would appear to have little to fear. To achieve its goal, the BBG, a tiny federal agency overseeing U.S. non-military broadcasters, first plans to gut its existing news operations, starting with the nation’s flagship overseas broadcaster, the Voice of America.

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Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting (Part Three): A New Structure

By Alex Belida

Having drafted a new mission statement for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) stressing the primacy of journalistic values and having proposed that a new non-partisan Board be composed mainly of media veterans, let us now focus on a more efficient structure for U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) that will attract greater audiences.

Instead of the current multi-entity structure, I would integrate VOA, RFE-RL, RFA, MBN and Radio/TV Marti into a single organization, eliminating all language duplication.  This new operation would be headquartered in Washington D.C. at the existing VOA center with satellite production bureaus as needed in strategic locations in addition to smaller news bureaus.

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The Future of International Broadcasting

By David Jackson

The president’s 2013 budget proposal this week was big news in Washington, but for those who care about public diplomacy and international broadcasting, the most interesting parts involved the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio & TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees these organizations, has proposed some significant cuts in the overall budget, which is hardly surprising given the nation’s economic problems. But they’ve also proposed sweeping changes in the way they want the broadcasters to operate in the future.

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Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting (Part Two): What to do About the BBG?

By Alex Belida

If, as suggested by Congress and proposed in my last posting, the mission of U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) is to be good journalism in support of freedom of the press and the free flow of information, then those who oversee America’s non-military broadcasting entities need to be selected accordingly.

Unfortunately, to date, few Governors have had serious backgrounds in journalism and foreign affairs and too many have had partisan or ideological agendas.  This needs to change if USIB is to prosper in the future and attract greater audiences.

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Whisper of America?

By Alan Heil

Under the Obama administration’s proposed FY 13 budget, the potential damage to the nation’s flagship publicly funded overseas network, the Voice of America, would be unprecedented if Congress approves it.  Contrast the reductions:  VOA faces net cuts totaling $17 million, compared with a reduction of $731,000 for its sister network, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The Voice of America, now in its 70th year, faces a far larger reduction, proportionally, than either the U.S. international broadcasting administrative support bureaucracy or collectively, the four other networks in the system.  They are:  RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Network, and Radio-TV Marti.  Cuts of VOA staff who actually put programs on the air are the principal targets of the cuts, across the board.  Such hemorrhaging must be halted if the free flow of information from America to the world is to be secured for the millennial generation so curious about our nation and its role in the century ahead.

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