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

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. 

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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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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.

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