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

U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations

Walter RobertsFor anyone interested in the Broadcasting Board of Governors and/or U.S. government broadcasting, I recommend reading this updated report-turned-chapter written by Shawn Powers: U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations (180kb PDF, also available as a Google Doc).

The news media landscape is rapidly changing in the wake of technological progress and the altered ways in which information is received and disseminated require adjustments in the contemporary media regulatory framework. Just as advances in science and health sectors require governments to adjust their laws accordingly, so do advances in information technology. The advent of the Internet, a global infrastructure able to disseminate information instantaneously from anyone to anywhere in the world, calls into question the value of laws written in the first half of the 20th century with the intent to limit the direction of news and information broadcast by particular organizations.

Currently, U.S. public service broadcasting, which is severely underfunded in comparison to the rest of the world, is also legally separate from U.S. international broadcasting, a technical firewall that inhibits effective collaboration between the two entities. As a result, U.S. funded international broadcasting is prohibited from disseminating its journalistic features within the U.S., a legal ban that hinders the use of its significant journalistic resources by both public and private news networks, including a large sector of ethnic media that could surely benefit from the 60 languages that American international broadcasters report in. This chapter argues for further collaboration between government funded international broadcasting and its domestic counterparts–both public and private–and for an adjustment in policies in order to accurately and intelligently adapt to the reality of today’s information ecology. …

It is important to note that international broadcasting from other governments is increasingly available throughout the United States as well. Moscow’s Russia Today is available via the Internet and on cable systems throughout the East coast. China’s state-run CCTV is also available throughout the US and on a few major cable providers. Ditto for Japan’s NHK World, France’s France 24 and Iran’s Press TV. Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, much more controversial than any U.S.-funded broadcaster, is available via the Dish Network for a small fee. Its sister station–Al Jazeera English, which is less sensational and more polished–is available in over 17 million American homes. In January 2009 as tensions rose between Hamas and Israel, it was the network of choice for Americans (via the Internet) for news about Gaza. If Americans can access foreign statefunded broadcasters, shouldn’t they also be able to tune into their own government’s programming? …

As the quality of news, especially international news, continues to decline, and as the domestic news media–both public and private–continue to face financial challenges, there is one untapped resource that remains off of the radar of most domestic news media, despite its long history of providing timely and accurate information: U.S. international broadcasting. Regretfully, few have argued for removing the Smith-Mundt Act’s restrictions in order to facilitate collaboration between the two, despite the fact that it would cost zero additional government resources and likely improve the quality of information produced by both American international broadcasting and its domestic news media. This oversight stems largely from the cultural and political stigma surrounding international broadcasting. The perception persists that it is government propaganda, an impression that, accurate or not, is no longer relevant in a world where information sovereignty is a thing of the past. Americans are bombarded with so-called “propaganda” from foreign governments all of the time. Territory-based restrictions on the flow of information no longer make sense in a world where identities, languages and politics increasingly transcend national boundaries. It is time to adjust our information policies to reflect today’s new reality, and soon, as both the domestic news media and U.S. international broadcasting are falling behind their international competitors. …

Shawn documents the use of BBG media and the availability of foreign government media inside the U.S. as well as debunks the arguments that the BBG is simply a front of U.S. propaganda. Shawn, USC-alum and now an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University, made his chapter available to MountainRunner for publication in advance to its appearance in a forthcoming book edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard’s Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It (New Press, 2011). This is an update of Shawn’s previous report of the same name.

See also:

Image: Walter Roberts, former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency.

The BBG’s Honeymoon: All Work and No Play

The BBG’s Honeymoon: All Work and No Play by Matt Armstrong, 9 September 2010, in Layalina’s Perspectives column.

MountainRunner bog post on the article is here.

There is a new governor in town, eight of them in fact. For the first time in six years, all of the top jobs at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are filled. Half of the seats sat empty for up to four years, including the chairmanship for the past two years. This fresh beginning provides some breathing room for the BBG, which manages all U.S. government, non-military international broadcasting. The Board is taking this honeymoon seriously: it has already held two meetings and is actively reviewing the state of international broadcasting, before putting its programmatic and managerial stamp on its operations.

As the Board considers the requirements, challenges, and opportunities it faces, along with the broadcasting organizations it supervises – including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), and Radio Free Asia (RFA)- three fundamental questions must be addressed: how is the BBG relevant in today’s global information environment? Can the BBG balance advocacy with news delivery as a part of the federal government? And, can the BBG adapt to the free-for-all participation of social media?

Recalling History: Making the Case for U.S. Government Broadcasting

image As Americans, we are detached from our history. True, remaining anchored to the past can hold back progress, understanding what came before and thus the trajectory of past activities that shape today is helpful. As the saying goes, those who fail to grasp history are doomed to repeat it.

Understanding the context of public diplomacy, the institutions, and methods is important. For too many, public diplomacy began in the 1980s when the beginning of recent memory. At a 2009 conference organized by Doug Wilson, now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, I sat on a “scene setting” panel with Harriet Fulbright, widow of the late Senator Fulbright, Len Baldyga, former Director of the Office of European Affairs of USIA, Barry Fulton, former Associate Director of USIA, and moderated by Bob Coonrod, former deputy director of VOA and former president and CEO for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. (I still don’t know why I was on this panel of luminaries.) Each person told a terrific example of public diplomacy. My job was to wrap it up, so I did. I realized there was a common theme: at one time we prioritized the resources (people, money, and “things”) to identify and engage the right audiences.

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Recalling History: Advisory Commission tells Congress to Expand VOA

On March 30, 1949, in its first semi-annual report by the US Advisory Commission on Information, the predecessor to today’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, recommended an “immediate and broad expansion of the world-wide information program being conducted by the State Department, including the activities of the Voice of America.”

A realistic approach requires that we provide a budget better balanced between the three-pronged program of military, economic and information policy. A budget which contemplates $15,000,000,000 for military, $5,000,000,000 for economic and only $36,000,000 for information and educational services, does not provide an effective tool for cleaning out the Augean Stables of international confusion and misunderstanding. …

It is in the information field that we meet the rival forces head on. The Soviet Union places by all odds its heaviest reliance on ‘propaganda’ spending enormous sums, and using its best and most imaginative brains. Other governments are acutely conscious of the importance of information programs and are spending more in proportion to their capacities than is the United States in telling its story abroad. …

There is a great need for additional regional offices and branch libraries to be established outside the capital cities. The dissemination of American private media abroad is primarily and essentially an informational activity and the responsibility and funds for this activity should be placed with the Department of State, and the activities should not be limited to the countries receiving aid under the European Recovery Act.

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Al-Shabaab receiving support from U.S. citizens and others in the U.S.

In a press conference today, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department unsealed four separate indictments charging 14 individuals in Minnesota, California, and Alabama with terrorism violations, including providing money, personnel, and services to the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. An indictment in Minnesota charged 10 men for leaving the U.S. to join al-Shabaab, an organization with ties to al-Qaeda, as foreign fighters. In Minnesota alone, 19 have been charged with material support of al-Shabaab. Two women, naturalized U.S. citizens and residents of Minnesota, were charged with raising money to support al-Shabaab through door-to-door solicitations and teleconferences in the Somali communities in Minneapolis, Rochester, and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.

Holder noted that members of the American Muslim community “have been – and continue to – strong partners in fighting this emerging threat” through denouncing terrorist acts and those who carry them out, as well as helping law enforcement disrupt plots and radicalization.

As laudable as these efforts are, they happen too late in the process of radicalization. Facts about Somalia, al-Shabaab, and the region are too often ignored by the mainstream media and largely unavailable to these communities, even those actively engaged online.

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Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

The impact of the “firewall” created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name.

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans by Matt Armstrong, 2 August 2010, at World Politics Review.

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might “spill over” into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the “firewall” created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name. …

The 1948 language also gave the media and academics, in addition to Congress, some say in determining what elements of public diplomacy being directed abroad were also fit for American consumption. But in 1985, Sen. Edward Zorinsky declared that even this was too much: Failing to shield Americans from the United States Information Agency would make the U.S. no different than the Soviet Union, “where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.” U.S. public diplomacy was so “dangerous” that it was exempted from the Freedom of Information Act that enforced transparency in government. Congress became the sole arbiter of what the taxpayer could see.

Today, any public diplomacy product from the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors may only be made available within the U.S. by an act of Congress. Naturally, these acts take time. For example, requests by NATO, Johns Hopkins and Harvard, among others, to show a 2008 Voice of America documentary film on Afghanistan’s poppy harvest were denied because of Smith-Mundt. The process for congressional approval began in early 2009, and as of today, it is still pending. Meanwhile, the video has been available on YouTube since 2008.

Congress has no similar concerns when it comes to content produced by foreign governments and their official news agencies. Congress decided in 1994 that “political propaganda” by foreign governments was safe for Americans. ..

Smith-Mundt in CQ Weekly

imageCQ Weekly, a publication covering Capitol Hill, ran a story by Tim Starks titled “For Their Ears Only” on the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010, co-sponsored by Congressmen “Mac” Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA).

A few select quotes from the article are below. To read the whole article, you’ll have to visit the CQ website.

“The central problem is that the law has not kept up with changes in technology,” said William M. ‘Mac’ Thornberry, a Texas Republican who is sponsoring the new legislation with Washington Democrat Adam Smith. “Whether it is the Internet, the most obvious example, or even satellite television broadcasts, it becomes extremely difficult to say this broadcast is not only intended for foreign audiences but will only go to foreign audiences.”

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated)

On July 13, US Congressmen Mac Thornberry (TX-13) and Adam Smith (D-WA), both members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, introduced “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010” (H.R. 5729), a bipartisan bill to revise an outdated restriction that interferes with the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts. The Smith-Mundt Act, formally known as the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, was intended to improve and institutionalize information and exchange activities to counter Communist activities around the world that America’s ambassador to Russia described in 1946 as a “war of ideology… a war unto death.” Today, however, the Smith-Mundt Act is invoked not to enable engagement but to limit it.

The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 by Reps. Thornberry and Smith seeks to update the so-called “firewall” of the Act to bring it up to date with the modern environment where people, ideas, and information move through porous or non-existent borders with increasing ease.

The impact of the current “firewall” is decreased accountability of what is said and done in the name of the taxpayer and with taxpayer’s money, reduced transparency and scrutiny in the conduct, purpose, and effectiveness of foreign policy, reduced awareness of global affairs, limited understanding of the State Department in general inhibiting the development of constituency.

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