Smith-Mundt Alert: USC magazine cites VOA

imageFound on page 7 of the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of USC College Magazine is a violation of federal law, specifically the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, as amended.  This magazine contains a quote from the Voice of America, a US Government broadcaster that is not permitted to be disseminated within the territory of the US (see image at right).  Concern over USIA and US Government broadcasters like VOA led the DC Circuit court in 1998 to exempt USIA from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Think of the damage Wikileaks could have caused if it was around in the 1990s to “expose” Americans to VOA!

Will the propagandists of the US Government stop at nothing to influence American minds?  Surely my alma mater should not have used this illegal agitprop and instead used information sources that are, in the eyes of Congress and standing legislation, presumably more trusted, entirely legal and without restriction available within the US, such as Russia Today (found on most cable systems across the US), or various Chinese government TV and radio broadcasters, or the Iranian Government’s PressTV?

Or, should we act like rational adults and take a step back and realize that the Smith-Mundt Act, as amended in the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s, an era far removed from today, requires updating?  The Act should permit commercial and private media, academia, and Congress to, at its discretion, disseminate domestically content produced and distributed with American tax dollars and in the name of American taxpayers. 

Or, is it too hard and inconvenient to recall a core purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act was to provide news and information to audiences that otherwise could not access it and that as private media stepped up, the Government would step down.  Instead, it is easier to ignore that US commercial media has retreated from covering overseas (or domestic) events in depth, or even at all.  CNN or Fox or MSNBC is covering Ethiopian elections like the VOA as well as providing persistent reporting of Somalia, as a major Somali community in the US requested, right?  Yes, let us rely on the Chinese government broadcasters to inform Americans instead of permitting American commercial media to broadcast the same news and information we distribute overseas within our own borders.

Following an event at the Heritage Foundation on Russian public diplomacy’s anti-Americanism, a Russian diplomat conveyed to a colleague his amazement that “they didn’t say anything about how Americans aren’t allowed to listen to VOA.” 

At what point we must stop pretending the US is neutral territory; we must stop pretending foreign government broadcasters have no agenda in the US; we must stop pretending that audiences within our borders, Americans and non-Americans alike, foreign and domestic media, have the information they need to understand the world around them; and we must stop pretending that US public diplomacy is dangerous to Americans.  Failing to do so results in a severe lack of domestic awareness of the context, people, and real issues and environment and how we do and how we should interface and engage with global audiences.  It limits oversight accountability of our overseas activities to Congress and the American taxpayer, prevents the development of a constituency to support public diplomacy and strategic communication, and even mutually supporting and comprehensive efforts from across the US Government and the private sector, including businesses, individuals, and non-governmental organizations. 

At some point, surely, we will realize information and people travel around the world with such speed and impact that borders are increasingly irrelevant.  The US is not Las Vegas: what happens here does not stay here.

3 Replies to “Smith-Mundt Alert: USC magazine cites VOA”

  1. The law still reads, and perhaps more importantly is interpreted, that the material is not to be available. Furthermore, while Smith-Mundt covers only former-USIA activities now within the State Department, the broad (and false) interpretation that Smith-Mundt was intended to prevent domestic access to material produced for foreign audiences based not on content but target audience.A court ruled that First Amendment rights allow media organizations to re-disseminate USG content, however the VOA, other BBG broadcasting properties, as well as Judith McHale’s office are prohibited from granting permission to their material and are, technically, violating the law by making the material available on the web. In my article “Censoring VOA” I describe how a US media outlet requested permission to re-broadcast material available online but was told no.
    Comparing this need to update the Smith-Mundt Act to the Office of Strategic Influence makes the leap that what we say to audiences abroad is unfit for American consumption. The Office of Strategic Influence was an entirely different entity with an entirely different purpose. It is a valid concern in that too many people equate America’s public diplomacy with nefarious propaganda – thus the association with OSI you offer – while ignoring the reality of the modern information environment that requires transparency because lies and distortions are too quickly discovered with the result of severe or permanent loss of credibility and legitimacy of the outlet.
    “Counter-propaganda” campaigns can take the form of merely providing news and information. Getting emotionally wrapped around the axle of subversion in today’s environment is overly simplistic and naive. Moreover, it assumes that the American public is not already subject to “influence operations” by the Government. Take the role of the President’s press secretary that creates distance from the President on his statements (compare, for example, the UK Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman who does not have an identity separate from the PM and says only what the PM says). Take the role Sunday talk shows play in the American discourse, or any election, or… I can go on.
    Further, your argument, which is widely supported, is in part based on the assumption that Americans cannot figure out when they are being lied to and, equally important, that foreign governments and interests, as well as corporate interests, are more trusted communicators.
    This is not about counter programming or “Information Operations” or Psychological Operations, but breaking down the firewall to news and information we tell global audiences but prohibit Americans from accessing and sharing. Moreover, this is not about competing with domestic broadcasters, but allowing them the choice. Right now, in addition to AP, UPI, Reuters, etc, they can choose foreign government news sources but not their own. Does that make sense?

  2. I thought that VOA content could be re-broadcast in the US if it was picked up independently by the media outlet? In other words, the VOA can not actively disseminate its products in the US, but if a US media outlet pulls information from the VOA website and re-disseminates it, that is OK.I agree that “we” (the US) need to get active in countering the messages coming across out borders. I just don’t feel there is the political will to do so. Remember how quickly the Office of Strategic Influence was killed? And that wasn’t even supposed to operate domestically. If the Fed. Govt. stood up an agency to conduct counter-propaganda operations targeting the domestic audience I can’t even imagine the response…

  3. Matt,One thing I know you know but failed to mention is the impact that this restriction has on our overseas influence efforts, especially in the area of public diplomacy. Overseas audiences are acutely aware that the USG may not disseminate foreign information programs domestically and so they understandably question their veracity. (“If you are not allowed to provide this to your own people, then it must be false.)”

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