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

US International Broadcasting as an Untapped Resource

Recommended: US International Broadcasting: an untapped resource for ethnic and domestic news organization (PDF, 139kb) by Shawn Powers.

The American approach to public service broadcasting, which is severely underfunded when compared to the rest of the world, is also legally separated from U.S. international broadcasting, a firewall that inhibits effective collaboration between either. Indeed, the problem is worse, as U.S.-funded international broadcasting is prohibited from disseminating its journalistic features within the U.S., a ban that prevents effective use of its significant journalistic resources by both public and private news networks in the United States. including a large sector of ethnic media that could surely benefit from the 60 languages that American international broadcasting reports in. For comparison, the BBC, the world’s most respected news institution, houses all of its international and domestic news services in the same newsroom, therefore maximizing the benefits of a diverse and large staff while limiting costly redundancies. This paper argues for further collaboration between government funded international broadcasting and its domestic counterparts — both public and private — and thus for policies that match the reality of today’s information ecology.

Shawn’s paper is a welcome contribution to the need to break down the firewall of the revised Smith-Mundt Act. The original purpose of the institutionalization of US international broadcasting in 1945 (the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was first introduced in October 1945) was to fill a gap in reaching non-US audiences that US media could not. Testifying before a House Appropriations Committee in 1946, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs stated the purpose of US government broadcasting:

Our number one policy is to encourage private agencies to do the job. We propose only to fill in the gaps where, and when private agencies cannot do the job.

Today, in a twist on the question about a tree in the forest, if America’s media does not cover an event, does it really happen? The retreat of US domestic media from overseas is troublesome for America’s global affairs. America’s media focus on speed over accuracy and a short-attention span prevents not only informing the American public, but of legislators, policy makers, and even the media itself. 

Shawn’s paper should be required reading by Congress and the State Department.

One minor comment on the paper: Shawn implies the language “for examination only” in Section 501 of the Act / Section 1461 of US Code was in the original legislation. It was, in fact, inserted by Senator Fulbright. 

See also:

The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts

American Diplomacy has several interesting articles this month, including a historical review by Walter Roberts, The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections:

Beginning in 1937, the failure of the Executive Branch to reach a decision regarding the establishment of a governmental radio station led to a shift in initiative from the Department of State to Congress. Gregory calls it “a change that was marked by the introduction in both the House and the Senate of several bills.” Their sponsors, in particular Congressman Emmanuel Celler (D- NY), argued that every other nation was prepared to see that the world understands its point of view – yet the U. S.  was at the mercy of the propaganda of other countries without the ability to present its own position. The year was 1937 and German-Nazi and Italian-Fascist propaganda were in full swing.

The Congressional sponsors of a government short wave station found themselves fiercely opposed by the private broadcasters of this country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) passed a resolution in June 1937 opposing any governmental international radio station. Within the Executive Branch there was no unanimity and the President was not willing to support the establishment of a government radio station.  The plan died in early 1940.

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Fresh Start for the Broadcasting Board of Governors

Last week, the White House announced its nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. For the first time since the BBG was created fourteen years ago, the Board will change completely with the new slate of eight candidates. If all the nominees are confirmed, it will be the first time since 2004 the Board was at 100%.

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Absent Leadership in Public Diplomacy

From the President to the Secretaries of State and Defense, we have frequently heard how public diplomacy is key to America’s national security. While Congress debates the encroachment of the military into areas traditionally occupied, lead, and resourced by civilian agencies, there remains too much darkness when it comes to understanding the dysfunction in the structures of America’s public diplomacy, let alone at the State Department as a whole. Whether it is absent leadership at USAID, empty Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary positions across State, including the Assistant Secretary positions at International Information Programs.

Such absence of leadership leads to meandering efforts and poor use of resources. This is a core issue behind the Congressional examination into Defense strategic communication activities – a warranted development considering the lack of leadership, as noted in this report from earlier this year.

The absence of leadership – even if the seat is being warmed – can lead to other agencies taking a piece of your pie. In the case of State, the void left by inaction and poor action by State in global engagement led to the often clumsy buildup by Defense. Today, USAID may suffer: the US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has asked the Secretaries of State and Defense to reallocate $170 million from DOD, DOS, and USAID to USDA for work in Afghanistan. In IIP’s America.gov (a site I used to tout) there’s a clear shift from informing and engaging through news to engaging through social media for the sake of engagement (apparently under the what-I-thought-was the outdated rubric of “to know me is to love me”). It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the same failure of leadership led to the disestablishment (abolishment to be blunt) of USIA ten years ago.

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News or Propaganda?

If the Government has a duty to get its viewpoint before the world, is it enough merely to send abroad the texts of state papers, speeches by and against the Administration? Particularly in the world’s twilight areas…, where private news agencies would lose money operating–should the State Department send full news broadcasts of its own? …

Last week the A.P. shut off the State Department’s principal free supply of news. U.P. announced that it would follow suit. …

Said the A.P.’s board: “. . . Government cannot engage in newscasting without creating the fear of propaganda, which necessarily would reflect upon the objectivity of the news services. . . .” …

Shrewdly, Benton reminded A.P. that Britain, Russia and other nations get and pass on U.S. news from the A.P.’s report. If the use of A.P. news by BBC and Tass does not hurt the A.P. reputation for objectivity, how could U.S. broadcasts reflect on A.P.? …

Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution: “The attitude of the A.P. might make a silent giant of this country when every other giant and pigmy in the world is broadcasting its own interpretation of American news events and policies.” …

From “The Press: News or Propaganda?” published in Time, January 28, 1946.

More on my Foreign Policy article about Smith-Mundt: Censoring the VOA

My article at Foreign Policy, Censoring the Voice of America (with additional information here), on the dated restrictions in the Smith-Mundt Act that prevents access to America’s international broadcasting elicited two reactions at ForeignPolicy.com. Both of the comments were expected and both are dated and ill-informed. Shawn Powers added his voice in a must-read comment at FP:

… Mr. CKWEBBIT, the idea that the status quo protects Americans from government propaganda is an utter joke. The war in Iraq is a terrific example of how, if the government wants, it can spin the US media any which way it likes. Let us, for once and for all, move past the idea that Americans (or anyone) need protection from particular media (be it Americans being protected from VOA or Arabs from Al Jazeera) and begin a conversation about the importance of integrating media literacy into the curriculum at a young age. … propaganda is already all over our satellite systems, from China’s CCTV to Russia’s Russia Today (RT). Press TV, Iran’s English language broadcaster is even available throughout the US via Livestation. If you want to argue for protection against propaganda, I suggest you refocus your criticism.

Mr. RLHOTCHKISS: … there are many ways to know when any news media is being deceitful — you compare it to other, credible sources. As an important example, the VOA corrected the mainstream media last month regarding a poll in Honduras after the coup. Let me restate: the CSM, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Reuters got it wrong and VOA got it right. You also state: "If you want to provide objective news in different languages do like the BBC and pay for it." We DO PAY FOR IT. With taxes. $700 million a year. But you can’t read/view it due to the Smith Mundt Act, so who knows if your taxes are being spent well.

See also:

Defense Department Plan on Strategic Communication and Science and Technology

sc_st_plan_final_public_Page_01 A newly released report from the Department of Defense may be the first to specifically consider the role of science and technology (S&T) efforts supporting the broad range of Strategic Communication (SC) activities across the whole of government. The Strategic Communication Science and Technology Plan, April 2009, (596kb PDF) produced by the Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) within the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Director, Defense Research Engineering (DDRE), responds to direction in the Fiscal Year 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, which calls for the Department to leverage these efforts to designate an “S&T thrust area for strategic communication and focus on critical S&T opportunities.”

Congress and RRTO authorized publication of this report on MountainRunner.us.

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