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

Quoting History: A Sound Report

Below is the beginning of short op-ed from The New York Times on a recent report on what would later be called public diplomacy by the Advisory Commission on Information, to be known decades later as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Every American interested in a strong information program for this country would do well to study the latest report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information. The Commission’s four members … have clarified the key problems we face in attempting to counter Communist propaganda throughout the world and have spoken plainly on matters that require plain speech.

…[R]eferring to Senator McCarthy’s television circus last year, the Commission says, “The wide and unfavorable publicity … gave the agency such a bad name that professionally competent persons were reluctant to accept employment in it.” The Commission adds that the result of periodic Congressional attacks is that those who prepare our counter-propaganda for overseas “are perforce more cautious of how the
messages will sound or appear to the investigators and completely lose sight of whether they will be effective with their intended audience.”

Published February 6, 1954.

In America? Smith-Mundt means no SMS updates on the President’s Ghana speech for you!

imageTo let the American public get updates to the President’s speech via SMS is dangerous and, presumably, equivalent to Al Qaeda and Taleban propaganda. No wait, those messages come through just fine so it must be worse than that and even Iranian, Russian, and Chinese Government propaganda. If you’re an American, you cannot sign up for SMS updates to what surely will be an excellent speech by the President – nor could you sign up for the previous much anticipated and lauded speeches – because the Smith-Mundt Act prevents American public diplomacy activities from reaching sensitive and impressionable American eyes and ears. If you’re in the 50 United States ("US minor outlying islands" don’t count) then you’ll have to hope the State Department’s Public Affairs

does something, but, call me a pessimist, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

See also:

Obsolete arguments to keep an obsolete law

By all means, let’s keep a law designed for another era on the books because, well, it’s there. That’s the argument many have offered in defense of the restrictive provisions added to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985. My friend Kim Andrew Elliot makes this argument while reviewing the Defense Department paper on strategic communication I posted this week.

"Understand the difference between public diplomacy and strategic communication. For the former, the audience is outside the geographic territory of the United States. For the latter, the audience is global. Science and Technology solutions do not generally discriminate based on geographic location, nor should they. The domains of strategic communication can not be limited to those with public affairs authority – everyone should be viewed as a strategic communicator."
Brilliant. This report has found a way to work around the Smith-Mundt clause prohibiting the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy. Just call it "strategic communication."

Kim’s statement is based on the belief that American public diplomacy is unfit for American audiences because it is a) deceitful, b) illegal influence, or c) damaging to the domestic news market. None of these are valid reasons today. 

Continue reading “Obsolete arguments to keep an obsolete law” »

Persuasive politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act

In the The Washington Times:

Persuasive politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act

Matt Armstrong
Friday, December 19, 2008

"Repairing America’s image" is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas.

Read the whole op-ed here.

Registration is now open plus other announcements

Registration for the Smith-Mundt Symposium – A Discourse to Shape America’s Discourse – is now open. Registration is free, open to the public, and required to attend the event on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.

The Symposium will be held at the Reserve Officer’s Association across the street from the Senate and House office buildings in Washington, D.C.

For details on this event, see http://mountainrunner.us/symposium/about.html.

There is also a discussion forum built specifically for this event: http://mountainrunner.us/symposium/. From here you can register to attend the Symposium as well as discuss the Smith-Mundt Act and suggest and discuss questions for the different panels. This site will host the electronic library to be available to registered attendees prior to the Symposium.

To register for the Symposium, go to http://mountainrunner.us/symposium/ and click on Registration in the menu bar near the top. Even if you cannot attend the Symposium, because you are reading this you will probably find the discourse at the website interesting and your contribution will increase the value for everyone.

Send any questions, comments, or issues, including registration problems, to Matt Armstrong at blog@mountainrunner.us.