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.
As the debate over whether Al Jazeera English should be available in the United States continues, Russia Today, the Russian government’s international news channel, quietly makes inroads across the United States. Kim Andrew Elliott, audience analyst at the International Broadcasting Bureau, a unit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, draws our attention to a press release from RT from 11 February 2011:
RT, an international TV news channel, has launched its English-language feed, 24×7, on San Francisco’s major cable provider, Comcast, which brings it to approximately 4 million viewers in the San Francisco metro area.
In the U.S., RT is carried by cable networks in New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Washington, DC; and in Los Angeles, CA. …
Nielsen Media research showed RT’s average daily audience in Washington, DC, as exceeding that of Deutsche Welle, France 24, Euronews, and CCTV News, the English-language Chinese news channel. In New York metro, the Nielsen survey indicated that RT’s daily audience exceeds the average daily audience of Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera English and CCTV News.
Almost one-half (42.6%) of RT viewers* in Washington, DC, and in New York, NY,** appreciate RT’s critical take on news of the day, as well as its different stance from the mainstream media, and see it as a reliable alternative. The majority (87%) of respondents consider mainstream TV channels, such as CNN and BBC America, to be partisan. …
RT, an international TV news channel in English, Spanish, and Arabic is carried in the US by cable TV providers in Washington, DC; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; and now in San Francisco, CA. GlobeCast WorldTV, a satellite provider, makes RT available elsewhere in the U.S. RT broadcasts 24×7 from its studios in Moscow, Russia, as well as from Washington, DC, in the U.S. All of its content is available live at www.RT.com.
It is ironic that foreign governments, be they China or Russia or Iran or the United Kingdom, or terrorists, can freely broadcast to Americans – increasingly from studios within the U.S. At one time, such foreign government material was officially considered propaganda. Today, it is only the U.S. Government media that is considered propaganda and off-limits to audiences who request them. Isn’t it time to revisit this?
For the practice, theory and organization of public diplomacy, is it helpful for the activities of a foreign government – or non-governmental organization for that matter – in the United States (or elsewhere) to be labeled as public diplomacy? Applying this label could contribute to increased understanding of public diplomacy’s methods and value in the Congress, the White House, the public and the media? Or it could be a harmful link to foreign “propaganda” and our own engagement efforts abroad?
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?
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.
My latest op-ed on the conceptually and practically out-of-date "firewall" of the Smith-Mundt Act is up at World Politics Review: Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans. The complete article is available without a subscription.
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 rest at World Politics Review and comment there or here.
It is time this wall, one of the last two remaining walls of the Cold War, the other being the Korean DMZ, came down. If we insist on keeping this wall, a completely un-American and naive approach to global affairs, should Wikileaks be enlisted to let people within the US borders know what its government is doing with its money and in its name?
- Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated) on the Thornberry-Smith legislation now pending in Congress
- Recalling the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium on the January 2009 event on US public diplomacy
- …and the only-somewhat tongue in cheek remark by PJ Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, at the daily briefing of 27 July 2010. While announcing the new Coordinator of IIP in his opening remarks, Matt Lee from the AP (also only somewhat tongue-in-check) asks whether PJ can talk about this "under the provisions of Smith-Mundt?" PJ’s response: "Yes. I, as the head of Public Affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally. IIP, on the other hand, can only communicate outside the borders of the United States."
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. ..
The 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium brought together public diplomacy and strategic communication practitioners from the State Department, the Defense Department, the Agency for International Development, and other governmental and non-governmental groups, including academia, media, and Congress for a first of its kind discussion. The goal to have a frank and open discussion on the foundation and structure America’s global engagement was achieved.
Held on January 13, 2009, just one week before the Obama Administration came into office and just short of the Smith-Mundt Act’s sixty‐first anniversary, this one‐day event fueled an emerging discourse inside and outside of Government on the purpose and structure of public diplomacy. The symposium was convened and chaired by Matt Armstrong.
Filling the largest room of the Reserve Officers Association on Capitol Hill, the symposium was a frank, on the record discussion among a diverse group of stakeholders, practitioners, and observers from the Congress, the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, and outside of government to discuss public diplomacy, strategic communication, or whatever their particular “tribe” calls communication and engagement. Many of the attendees never had a reason to be in the same room before, let alone share tables to discuss surprisingly common interests.
In an article written for The New York Times Magazine December 2, 1945, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton described the purpose and need for what we know refer to as public diplomacy. This article came less than two months after HR 4368 was introduced in the House, a bill on extending and broadening the “existing programs for the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills between” the US and foreign countries.
By Peggie Duggan
Exactly who is responsible for explaining the United States to the rest of the world? Perhaps, more importantly, who is responsible for explaining the United States to her own people? The answers are the U.S. Department of State and nobody, respectively. As Dr. Phil would say, “How is that working for you?”
On a forgotten day, buried in the Congressional Record, one senator stood up and said,
Our country, I think we can all admit, has experienced a tremendous decline in international respect since 1943. At the end of World War II, due both to our leadership toward victory and to an accumulation of international prestige built over the decade, this country occupied an enviable stance.
It was liked, admired, and trusted to a degree even by conquered nations, and we had the one great Military Establishment intact in the whole world.
Now what has happened? Why has the world deteriorated? You can’t point your finger of blame at any individual or any individual policy. But when that kind of historic demonstration is before us, it seems to me that alert Americans ought to ask themselves why and what can we do about it?
This country today is being popularly blamed by much of the politically conscious population of the world for a great share of the misfortunes of the world…
Something is wrong with American policy. There is nothing wrong with American attitudes, nothing wrong with the American ideal, nothing wrong with the basic concept that we provide a lot of foreign aid and leadership and help the free world get stronger…Nobody really believes we are imperialistic. Nobody really believes we are trying to superimpose any religious creed or a political philosophy on anybody.
We do this out of an abundance of good will and out of some impulse of self-preservation, and we get attacked.