Who engages and informs the American public on foreign affairs?

imageimageWho engages and informs the American public on foreign affairs.  It isn’t the media.

This shows Lara Logan’s lament about television’s cutback is a reality in print. 

Read the New York Times article, the Pew Research Center website, and the Journalism.org site (including this page).  If you don’t want to read them all, read the last link:

The survey used three different measures to probe the question. It asked about space devoted to a range of topics. It asked about the amount of reporting resources assigned to cover each topic. And it asked how essential editors thought each topic was to their paper’s identity.

By all three measures, international news is rapidly losing ground at rates greater than any other topic area. Roughly two-thirds (64%) of newsroom executives said the space devoted to foreign news in their newspaper had dropped over the past three years. Nearly half (46%) say they have reduced the resources devoted to covering the topic-also the highest percentage recording a drop. Only 10% said they considered foreign coverage “very essential.”

This decline in foreign news occurs as U.S. armed forces confront stubborn insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration talks of a global war on terrorism and international trade increasingly impacts the everyday lives of Americans.

Is domestic broadcast media picking up the slack?  Kim shares a report that CNN might be with (only?) one show: Fareed Zakaria’s GPS:

“‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ (GPS stands for ‘Global Public Square’) … is, in effect, an international version of “Meet The Press,” with prominent newsmakers answering his tough, well-researched questions. … In an era in which Americans are demanding — and thus getting — less international news, Zakaria’s ‘GPS’ is an auspicious event indeed. Only ‘BBC World News’ has been offering this kind of responsible global perspective and news to U.S. view." Bill Mann, Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), 20 July 2008.

Obviously the first story has Smith-Mundt implications – who tells the story of what’s happening overseas if it isn’t the media?  Telling “America’s story to the world”?  What about telling it at home?  At one time, the major media, print and broadcast, and the government had a cooperative relationship.  At one time, the products of US information activities were to be easily available to academics, Congress, and the media and were not to be under any limit on domestic redistribution.  Things have changed.  Today, the American public knows little about what is said and done in its name overseas.  Today, the American public is subject to the “inform but not influence” mentality of press releases and sound bites designed not to educate, engage, and truly inform but to pierce the media’s filter. 

Once upon a time, the government subsidized the overseas purchase of US news, books, and film to the tune of $15m in 1948.  The Informational Media Guarantee program was put (buried) into the European Recover Act, aka the Marshall Plan.  Think we should do that again?  Makes you think.

Unrelated, congratulations to Chris Albon and his journey with SOUTHCOM on the USS Kearsarge

That’s it for now. 

10 thoughts on “Who engages and informs the American public on foreign affairs?

  1. Any American can go to voanews.com and see both what is happening abroad and how taxpayer dollars are used to inform foreign audiences about the news.Going to the website is not a violation of Smith-Mundt. What government lawyers have deemed inappropriate is for VOA to promote itself among Americans.
    Shame, no?

  2. True, Americans can go to the VOA website. They can also go to BBC.co.uk and CNN.com.But to the point, is that adequate? Is VOA the full and complete “voice of America”? Does the government, even the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy engage VOA? Is it used to fill the gaps and does it address Americans as well as an international audience?

  3. What do you mean by adequate? Is the NYTimes “adequate” as a source of information or a “full and complete” source of news? No single source probably is. But who decides how much is adequate? And adequate for whom?And what about all those who shun newspapers, internet news sources and tv and radio news, whether about foreign or domestic events?
    Afraid changing Smith-Mundt won’t change that problem.

  4. There’s an underlying problem within the American discourse on foreign policy and international security rooted in America’s tendency toward isolationism and exceptionalism. While Smith-Mundt does not create that, it fosters the belief that there are two different spheres of engagement. There’s the international sphere that is engaged through dialogue, listening, and perspective of the listener (if and when done properly). The American sphere is a supposedly sterile sphere of “inform but not influence” that eschews the engagement and trust building of the other sphere. The latter is of course not the case in domestic politics. But the same tools available to domestic politics, that Karl Rove expertly used, are unavailable to transparently discuss foreign policy.Is this partly the fault of the political process itself? Yes. Is it partly the fault of the evolved concept of public affairs? Yes. Scratching the surface and exploring the subject of how we engage in the global information environment almost always includes some statement that “we can’t do x because of Smith-Mundt [or similar concept rooted in, unbeknownst the speaker, Smith-Mundt]”.
    Understanding the psychological value of information, the necessity of truth and building legitimacy is required domestically as it is internationally. Changing Smith-Mundt won’t change that, but it will remove an obstacle too often cited as a tool to prevent action rather than encourage, foster, and enable action as the law was intended.

  5. The reason international news is under-reported, and why local news is perhaps over-reported, is that newspapers and television stations are in the advertising business, not the news business. The advertising model of the media incentivizes news that is entertaining, if not informative. As you mention in the article, a defacto supply & demand system takes root, and leads to the general decline in the quality and type of news.We all agree that it is a bad thing for people to be uninformed. As you seem to suggest, however, this lack of coverage opens up a gap that state/military PR can fill. It is my opinion that this is not good for democracy. The PR will, of course, be branded as education, but as readers of this blog well know, that definition is only for the people neither read strategic communications blogs nor understand their system of euphemisms.
    A strong, independent press is essential to democracy (think Pravda here), and if US lawmakers are serious about informing their citizens (which sounds like a punchline I realize), then taking away some of the financial incentives that favor entertaining news, rather than informative news, news would surely go a long way. Perhaps money that would be spent on domestic IO could go toward public funding of media outlets?

  6. The same arguments were made in 1940s about the media – that they tended toward the salacious and focused on Hollywood too much. However, they did cover foreign affairs and as the AP bragged, the wire services were rapidly expanding into the overseas markets after the war. Then, news was part of the “entertainment” in the new period of globalization.The gap in coverage does require a solution, or at least a partial solution. What I suggest is not simply public relations. PR is a by-product of the engagement.
    Jeff, with reservation, I agree with your final paragraph. The reservation is based on your definition of information operations. Any informational engagement can, and should, be considered IO whether it done by private media or public. The purpose is to engage, inform, and mobilize. The public funding of media outlets, whether Voice of America or NBC or NPR has a lot of merit.
    In fact, public subsidies of private media was put into the Marshall Plan that was effectively an enhancement for Smith-Mundt. This was the Informational Media Guarantee that offset the costs of sending US informational media, from books to movies to news, overseas. The offset generally focused on exchange rate stabilization, but often went further. By the way, the start up of this fund was $15m in 1949.
    The Smith-Mundt Act was passed to fill a gap, a gap the government readily admitted it would back out of if and when the private media stepped up. In other words, Smith-Mundt had programmed into it an end of life for the information activities based on the government-media relationship of the time. Present realities indicate private media won’t and can’t fill the gap either domestically or internationally (although CNNi is quite good, but the reach isn’t great enough).
    One other point to ponder is the expansion of English-language information services by countries we should look upon as either potential adversaries (economic or militarily) and not as close allies (like the UK). They are not playing catch-up…

  7. Matt, thanks for the thoughtful response, and the quick history.I have my own reservations about your definition of IO however, (and this is something I’ve heard brought up in discussions of IO): If we expand the definition of IO to encompass “any informational engagement”, as you suggest, it effectively makes everything the military does an information operation. While I realize that even (maybe especially, looking at Afghanistan this past week) kinetic operations have “shaping” implications that come to bear directly on the goals of IO, I am worried that such an overarching definition might not best serve the American people.
    For instance, we both agree that publicly funding media might improve the quality of news because it would take away financial incentives for the creation of entertainment news. However – and here, I bet, is where we’ll disagree – I believe that in order to best serve the public, this funding must come without strategic imperatives. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but I’m taking your suggestion that IO “engage, inform, and mobilize” to mean that US strategic goals should be an explicit consideration in American media
    The most difficult, and I would argue desirable, aspect of publicly funding media would be maintaining editorial independence. Well paid journalists who do not feel financially pressured to produce certain types of news (be it entertaining or strategic) will produce the most valuable news for a democracy. I’m worried that IO, too broadly defined, could result in a “creeping militarization” within the communications environment, along the lines Gates recently warned of.

  8. Jeff, thank you for the thoughtful comment.To begin, the question of what exactly is IO is a good question. On a continuum, IO is bracketed by PA and PSYOP. But if most of IO is “white”, what really separates it from PA? Is just the non-white stuff IO or is it a stylistic difference (PA essentially being the sterile inform but not influence mentality, or restated, inform through press release)? If most of what PSYOP does is “white”, what separates its from PA or IO, and then from PA? This is a discussion some are having now and I don’t have an answer (at least not yet… look for the publication later this year 😉
    Staying within the realm of DOD, all kinetic operations are informational engagements. The problem is, we’re just realizing that now. There is a push to raise this awareness. Shock and Awe was a campaign of influence. Gulf War briefings by Schwarzkopf were influence activities. Especially in the cheap media age where every GI Joe and jihadi and tom, dick, harry, jane, amir, osama, every action is influence. Busting in a door in a police operation conducted by soldiers is an influence operation. We need to realize that we need information plans with operational annexes and stop operating in the reverse. What is the desired effect we want to achieve and how do we achieve it. Most often, especially in low-intensity conflicts, and in future conflicts that may not have a shot fired at all, managing perceptions and uncutting the legitimacy of the adversary is the key.
    American public diplomacy currently wears combat boots. It is unfortunate, but it does. It shouldn’t and Gates doesn’t want it. State needs to step-up, but it needs help. DOD filled a void it shouldn’t have and didn’t want to. We need to realize it and we need to do something about it. This includes understanding the utility and value of information, advocacy, persuasion, and influence and that informational threats come from more traditional security threats (e.g. terrorism).
    Switching gears, engage, inform, and mobilize should be a goal, but not a filter. Goods news must be accompanied by bad. Truth must be put out there, including the ugly truths. Heck, exposure may put pressure on domestic fixes. There’s a strong argument that the American Civil Rights movement was assisted by the negative impact it was having on our international image.
    On the point of editorial independence, I agree this is a challenge. The starting point is to have a professional editorial staff. Edward R. Murrow once bragged he would put his staff against a professional news organization. While part hubris, that’s saying something and probably not something any of the BBG outfits today would even joke about. Professionalism is required and is perhaps the most critical missing component.
    A provocative question with a purpose: what if we had the United States Agency for Psychological Defense? Does that set off alarm bells? Should it or should it not?
    I hope the response isn’t littered with too many types or missing too many words… it’s late and I need to shut down.

  9. Thanks Matt, lots of stuff there.This thread is getting fairly long and tangential, but maybe that’s a good thing.
    The PA/PYSOP continuum is certainly a tricky one. You’re not the first person I’ve heard suggest that even most PSYOP is “white”. I have a problem with this because it demarcates “white” from “black” only on the grounds of “not-lies” and “lies”. Anything that is not an outright lie is seen as a “white” op. This worries me, as I think there are plenty of ways to be dishonest without having to necessarily lie. The gray areas are what should really concern us, and I don’t think the “white” should subsume the “gray”.
    Regardless, I think what we both might be able to agree upon is that if there is going to be a division between PA and PSYOP (at least an official one) we need clear, discernible definitions of both. I know you don’t like this division, but I believe there should still be some caveats protecting the American people, and I think untangling the whites and the blacks out of the mess of gray might help this (i.e. misrepresented sources: black, gray, white?).
    Psychological Defense? Sets of alarms bells for me. Sounds like a Fraken-USIA, ha. But then again, you’d have to say what this would involve.

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