The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

A clear absence of research, making arguments incongruent with history and facts, and unsubstantiated if-then statements are the kind of malpractice that at some point is more than mere accidental misinformation. With the rare exception, modern calls to reincarnate the United States Information Agency skirt beyond malpractice and misinformation and into the realm of disinformation. Calls to “bring back USIA” are prevalent enough to be a genre of its own. And this genre, while well-intentioned, is a Pavlovian reaction based almost entirely on demonstrably false mythologies.

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How Important is Public Diplomacy? A brief look at the Fulbright Board

President Truman, with Sen Fulbright and Assistant Secretary Benton, signs the Surplus Property Act into law

This is the first of an occasional, and limited, run of posts comparing the present with the past to suggest – though perhaps reveal is a better word – how far into the margins “public diplomacy” is today. The subject of this post is the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, formerly known as the Board of Foreign Scholarships.

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The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.

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tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

Last week, I published “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,” a 2300-word discussion on the bipartisan failure to fill the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Below is a bulleted edition (with bonus arguments) for the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) crowd.

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W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Whither /ˈ(h)wiT͟Hər/ what is the likely future of? 
Wither /ˈwiT͟Hər/ fall into decay or decline.

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In December 1944, the State Department formally, and finally, acknowledged the important role of public opinion to U.S. foreign policy by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Renamed to the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs just over a year later, the assistant secretary was charged with expanding both the department’s domestic and foreign engagement programs “to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” This integrated approach, given expansive global legislative authority by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was later shredded because ivy league diplomats at the department wanted the foreign cultural and information programs to conform to their “own long-established conventions [rather] than carrying out the congressional intention of [the Smith-Mundt Act].” This meant removing the public side to foreign affairs and creating the United States Information Agency in 1953 and institutionalizing the segregation of information from policy and the foreign from the domestic. In 1997, when Congress set upon shuttering USIA and reintegrating the bulk of its operations into the State Department, they directed the executive branch to establish a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Instead, the White House established an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Notionally akin to the integrated portfolio of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it existed from 1944-1953. The reality was different and the segregation continued. The fact this office has been vacant four of ten days since the autumn of 1999 reveals the intentional marginalization of the informational component of foreign affairs continues even as many assert the U.S. is engaged in some kind of “information war.”

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“Exploited daily by quacks and adventurers”

At the end of the summer of 1949, Vincent Price had some words. Price was then the eponymous character on the show The Saint (his performance is superb by the way) and at the end of an episode titled “Color-Blind Killer” he offered the following public service announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In a prejudice filled America no one would be secure in his job, his business, his church or his home. Yet racial and religious antagonisms are exploited daily by quacks and adventurers whose followers make up the irresponsible lunatic fringe of American life. Refuse to listen to or spread rumors against any race or religion. Help to stamp out prejudice in our country. Let’s judge our neighbors by the character of their lives alone and not on the basis of their religion or origin.

Vincent Price, September 18, 1949.

You can hear this episode here. His PSA is at 21:54.

Sadly, the “quakes and adventurers whose followers make up the irresponsible lunatic fringe of American life” are, unfortunately, still with us. Worse, they are out of the shadows and feel empowered.

You can also hear Price’s PSA at the end of every one of the Down These Mean Streets podcasts (which I recommend).

Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #105

February 8, 2021 

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Rob Bole: USAGM is a unique, underutilized foreign policy tool

By Guest Contributor Robert Bole

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has attracted significant headlines based on a series of purges, dubious internal investigations, and controversial decisions by current CEO, Michael Pack, a Trump appointee and Steve Bannon disciple.

In his limited time, Pack has tried to rapidly and radically change the United States’ primary voice to foreign audiences away from its traditional mission of delivering fact-based news and information to turn it more into a partisan weapon to support the Trump Administration’s domestic and international political goals.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #104

December 7, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #103

October 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #103

Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

There is a government position at the center of countless reports on countering foreign disinformation, correcting misinformation, and directly engaging foreign audiences that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these very reports and recommendations. Whether due to ignorance, perceived irrelevance of the office, or both, the ghosting of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reveals a fundamental defect in the analysis of how the United States has, does, and could organize in response to the role of public opinion in foreign policy and national security. Established in 1999 as a reinterpreted USIA Director, excepting the broadcast operations, the office has had a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary only 60% of the time. Even if the counter stopped at the start of the Trump administration, which had one Under Secretary who served for only 100 days, the average officeholder’s tenure was one year and seven months with an average of more than six months between incumbents. The marginalization of this office, including the nearly complete disregard of its potential in the myriad of recommendations on “recreating” USIA or similar structure, should surprise no one.

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No, the US Agency for Global Media does not compete with US commercial media

The US Agency for Global Media, formerly named the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is often in the news these days. The usually quiet, forgotten (even across the government) independent federal agency, where “independent” means it is not subordinate to a cabinet secretary while still under the authority of the White House, is not generally well known. Its mission and utility to U.S. national security, not just foreign policy, is particularly not well understood. The confusion around, and even ignorance of, the USAGM generally engenders a couple of questions. Both are fair and foundational but when asked by foreign policy observers they not only highlight the misinformation around an agency established to proactively combat misinformation (and disinformation), they can have troubling consequences if not answered.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

August 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Managing the problem: VOA, Smith-Mundt, and oversight

Public Law 80-402 opening

The White House, in typical fashion, very publicly lashed out at reporting it did not like. In this case, it was reporting from the Voice of America, a government-funded and managed news service, on Wuhan in China. The White House was triggered by a story published by VOA that did not come from the network, or its sister operation covering China, Radio Free Asia. VOA had republished a story from the Associated Press which VOA distributes under contract. Yesterday, I framed the situation as a failure of VOA’s leadership, and by extension a failure of VOA’s parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media, to focus on the mission and parameters of VOA. That mission and those parameters do not include providing coverage that is redundant to commercial media and does include focusing on audiences relevant to US foreign policy. Below, I continue the conversation by focusing on the “safeguards” Congress implemented around VOA to prevent and correct such failures, safeguards ignored by Congress and the White House abdicating their responsibilities.

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Understanding the White House’s Attack on VOA

Last week, the Trump administration attacked the US government-funded Voice of America. The White House did this through its online newsletter and a tweet by Trump’s Director of Social Media. Described as a “bizarre broadside,” these public statements are really just more revelations of the decay and drift of US foreign policy and this administration’s inability to provide even a modicum of leadership.

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Quote: There was a time…

There was a time we could afford—or thought we could afford —to be unconcerned about what other people thought of us… That time is past. We shall be making decisions, within the U.N. and independently, that will have repercussions affecting the lives of ordinary people all over the globe. Our attitude and our actions—and rumors thereof—will be matters of concern everywhere.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in April 14, 1947

This is a quote from the past on the need to directly reach people abroad in the interest of US foreign policy. Today, we may call this public diplomacy, but then it was simply “public affairs.” The term “public diplomacy” would not be adopted for another two decades for the purpose of defending the independence of a bureaucracy.

Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

March 5, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

Ben Bradlee and Public Diplomacy’s ‘Missing Years’

Cover page for a USIS daily news bulletin from September 1945, eight years before USIA was established.

This article was originally published on January 5, 2015. It has been revised and republished to spark new conversations.


There was a time before the United States Information Agency when the State Department held the entire portfolio of what we now call public diplomacy, and then some. A fact often that is forgotten or ignored. There was also a United States Information Service that existed for nearly two decades before USIA was created by the Eisenhower Administration in 1953, as the lesser of a two-part reorganization of government to improve the nation’s management of foreign policy. This is also forgotten, ignored, or, most likely, unknown. The misrepresentation of history not only misstates the trajectory of the government’s struggle with organizing public diplomacy, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy programs and those who carried out these programs before USIA. An example of this was seen in 2014 with the unfortunate passing of Mr. Ben Bradlee.

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