A book for the aspiring architect of USIA 2.0

OverseasInformation “Brookings Report Sees Flaws in U.S. Information Service” was the page 2 headline in the Washington Post on December 13, 1948. The report, Overseas Information Service of the United States Government by Charles Thomson, looked at the information activities during World War II and more importantly, immediately after. It was published shy of eleven months after the Smith-Mundt Act was passed. In reflecting on the “unprecedented instruments of world propaganda” created by the U.S. Government for the war, Thomson notes the “machinery” was not new, but the scale of peacetime engagement was new.

The Declaration of Independence was issued out of a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, as a means of explaining and justifying the historic step then taken. Benjamin Franklin was our first cultural ambassador, and our diplomatic service has traditionally dealt with the problem of representing America fairly to influential persons and groups in other countries.

A change, he notes, is the increased importance of engaging a larger segment of the population instead of the “influential persons” in and near government. In line with this, he suggests the information service should be “closely related to foreign policy and foreign relations.” It is also to be an “instrument of national interest and national strategy, although not confined to short-run operations or effects.”

Thomson explored many of the models currently under discussion today by the many groups looking at creating “USIA 2.0.” The range of possibilities start from a wholly government agency to a public corporation. For each, he explores the shift from one to another from capabilities to capital costs.

He also makes several recommendations to be addressed at the time. These included some of the following amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act:

  • “The authority to disseminate information abroad should be broadened to include the distribution of any information, whether about the United States or not, which furthers the purpose of the act.”
  • “The policies governing release of material used in the information service should be broadened to authorize release to the general public at any time after use. What is safe for foreign audiences to get should be safe for our own people.”
  • The “two Advisory Commissions [one was for information activities and the other for exchanges of persons, these were later combined into the single U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy] should be abolished and replaced by a larger single commission, able to give the Secretary of State comprehensive advice covering the whole problem of how to run information and cultural relations activities in the interest of the country.”
  • Eliminate the emphasis of the U.S. role in the United Nations. “This is the sort of decision which must be left to current considerations. For example, our United States role in Palestine policy is hardly one to be proud of; our information service should not be required to overemphasize vacillation and weaknesses.”

Thomson also recommended a Board of Visitors, a joint subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to be the main liaison point between Congress and an “information program liable to lose domestic perspective in its concentration on foreign objectives.” This Board would analyze on behalf of Congress the reports of the Advisory Commissions and the Secretary of State.

In discussing the U.S. information space, he reminds the reader of the propaganda environment within the U.S. but he is one of the few that reminds us of the Congressional response to these activities: Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. He was fully aware foreign information services (“other propagandas”) were active within our borders. He sought to temper the concerns of many, including those in Congress, that they must “compete with the information activities established in this country, which possesses a press and motion picture industry second to none.”

Many of the questions being asked today are, as I’ve noted before, are similar to those of the past. The only difference today is that over the last several decades we’ve forgotten the importance of engaging people in favor of governments. In the 1940s, the reality of the “war among the people” was acute.

The dust jacket notes the book presents “a detailed history of the operations of the information services of the U.S. Government, the volume is invaluable to librarians, radio specialists, publicists and to every serious student of the subject.” I agree. The cover scan above is from my copy.

Rethinking Smith-Mundt

Rethinking Smith-Mundt by Matt Armstrong, 28 July 2008, at Small Wars Journal.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics – were retooled with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The former has received significant attention over the years and is currently the subject of an intense project to recommend updates. In contrast, the latter, a direct response to the global ideological threat posed by Communist propaganda, has been variously ignored, glossed over, or been subject to revisionism. Smith-Mundt was a largely successful bipartisan effort, establishing the foundation for the informational and cultural and educational engagement that became known as “public diplomacy.”

While today is unlike yesterday, it is worthwhile to look back on the purpose of Smith-Mundt and the debates surrounding the dissemination prohibition that has taken on mythical proportions. The modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt has given rise to an imaginary information environment bifurcated by a uniquely American “iron fence” separating the American media environment from the rest of the world.

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.