If you had the opportunity to ask a question of James Glassman at his upcoming Senate confirmation hearing as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, what would it be?
My questions, below, are still in draft form, so feel free to hack, jack, and ridicule:
Today the United States is engaged in a war of ideas and perception. A war we are barely participating in. Sixty years ago, Public Law 402: The United States Information and Educations Exchange Act of 1948, commonly referred to as the Smith-Mundt Act was passed to formalize the institutions needed to fight the last war of ideology and understanding. Today, far removed from its original purpose and the crafters intent, Smith-Mundt is broadly interpreted to apply not just to certain elements of public diplomacy, specifically those of USIA and VOA, now both rolled into the Department of State, but to the operations of the Defense Department while at the same time ignoring other U.S. government communications for both overseas and domestic consumption.
The communications revolution of the 1940s that in part spurred Representative Karl Mundt (R-SD) and Senator Alexander Smith (R-NJ) still shapes our communication with the world. But the simple communications models of the 1940’s have been replaced by global networks of formal and informal media. Careful deliberation by both media and the consumers of media is gone. Today, perception too often trumps fact. By the time the truth comes out, the audience and media have moved on.
Question #1: Mr. Glassman, what are your thoughts on Smith-Mundt? Does it apply to the whole of the United States government? To a part or all of the State Department? What about the Defense Department or the President’s Press Secretary or other departments or agencies in the Executive and Legislative Branch? Are they covered under Smith-Mundt?
Smith-Mundt institutionalized the often recalled United States Information Agency. The Smith-Mundt committee made it clear the USIA must, to be effective, tell the truth; explain the motives of the United States; combat misrepresentation and distortion by our adversary; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy.
Question #2: Is it time to have another agency, insulated from the whims of the Oval Office and Congress to become a credible and trusted voice for news and information to replace the haphazard solutions put forth by various parts of the United States Government today?
When speaking with those who practice public diplomacy or strategic communications, the distinction is for another question, frequently heard is how conversations with foreign audiences are shaped more by how our own people will interpret the discussion than the listener standing in front of us.
Question #3: Given the way the media environment has evolved since Smith-Mundt was enacted, how realistic is it to think we can separate messages according to the audiences they’re supposed to influence (or not)? Whoever you think the law applies to, doesn’t it give them an impossible assignment? Should we just get rid of it or rewrite it to provide more realistic regulation, given modern media conditions?
These are wordy but I’ve listened to these confirmation hearings before and in that context, the above might actually be too brief ;). Post your questions and suggestions in the comments below or email me directly.
In the spirit of collaboration, the questions have been enhanced by a suggestion from Steve.
Update: Jim Glassman was confirmed 4 June 2008. The office was vacant for 172 days…