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.
On Friday morning, January 18, 1957, Arthur Larson gave a lengthy and wide-ranging presentation on the United States Information Agency to President Eisenhower’s cabinet. After 22 months as under secretary at the Labor Department, and now one month as USIA Director, Larson used charts, maps, and film clips to describe the barely four-year-old agency. The nearly three dozen attendees included the President, Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Larson’s objective was positioning the agency at the center of a whole of government engagement program. Larson stressed “the need for the help of all Cabinet members, since the program for telling the United States’ story can succeed only if everyone in public and private life is alert to the impact of our actions on world opinion.”
You know you’ve heard it. Whether it was at the office, at school, or a social setting (how erudite of you!), you heard someone bemoan the loss of the United States Information Agency. Perhaps that someone was you. In my experience, these laments are really a coded acknowledgment that the U.S. lacks a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to operate in an information-driven world. Continue reading “No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency – endnote edition “→
A legendary member of the old guard of public diplomacy passed away December 30 at the age of 90. Barry Zorthian, seen at right at the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium, had a long career in the service of the United States and the media. I’m honored to have known Barry over the past two years.
Barry was born in Turkey in 1920. Emigrating with his family to the US, he graduated from Yale University in 1941 and joined the US Marine Corps, serving as an artillery officer in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Barry worked at CBS Radio in New York and earned a law degree from New York University. He also worked for the Voice of America for 13 years with Voice of America, first as a reporter, then an editor and finally as program manager.
In 1964, after three years in India for the State Department as a deputy public affairs officer. Back then, the public affairs officers worked for the United States Information Agency (or Service as it was known outside the US). Edward R. Murrow, as USIA Director and thus Barry’s boss, asked Barry to head the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam. Barry would say this was the first (and largest ever) joint State and Defense public affairs office. According to Barry, to get around the concern based on Smith-Mundt that the USIA should not be speaking to the US public, Barry was transferred to the State Department and USIA reimbursed State for his pay.
Barry Barry retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1973, served as Vice President of Time Inc. (now Time Warner) and served on the Board for International Broadcasting with jurisdiction over Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
In July 2010, his wife Margaret Aylaian Zorthian, died. They had been married for 62 years. Barry is survived by two sons, Greg and Steve.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is convening a non-partisan public diplomacy initiative next week, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense William Perry. The initiative will bring together a broad coalition of high-level experts, practitioners, including members from the corporate and foundation sectors, the think-tank and academic communities, and the Congress, to develop a business plan for the new organization to provide sustained, innovative, and high quality private sector support for US public diplomacy; and identify public and private sources of funding.
The envisioned entity will be non-partisan and transcend Administrations. It will facilitate better coordination and implementation between the government and the private sector while providing the U.S. Government additional capabilities. It “will not encroach” or “undertake the Government’s current [public diplomacy] activities.”
There will be five independent subcommittees under the Business Plan Working Group to be launched at the meeting next week. Matt Armstrong, your blogger and president & founder of the MountainRunner Institute, is a member of this working group.
Matt’s blog has become a force to behold in the discussion about strategic communication, public diplomacy, and State/DOD relations. It has shined a light on what largely was a rarified, inside-the-beltway debate symptomatic of the old USIA’s domestic blank spot. What has been lacking are stories from the field outside the U.S. – examples of PD as it actually is conducted by PD professionals. Here’s one from my own experience that in many ways is typical.
I’ve run effective PD programs that didn’t cost Uncle Sam anything except my own time. I’ve run next to useless PD programs so flush that I couldn’t spend all the money Washington showered upon me. And I’ve run just about everything in between those extremes. As every experienced PAO knows, basic human grit, skill, and talent will go far in assembling a program, but a little bit of cash always helps. And it doesn’t have to be much, especially when compared to what other agencies spend.
In today’s The New York Times, Dick Brass, a former Microsoft Vice President (1997-2004), describes a corporate paralysis that stifles the release of relevant and innovative products in his op-ed, Microsoft’s Creative Destruction.
As they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter. …
Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.
What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers. …
What does Microsoft’s “Creative Destruction” have in common with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP)? According to Pat Kushlis of the public diplomacy blog Whirled View, too much. Pat drew my attention to the Dick Brass op-ed and had these comments, published here with permission:
Read the last paragraphs in particular and just substitute the initials IIP because that’s precisely what happened to a forward thinking bureau when State took over.
If the [International Broadcasting Bureau, the administrative and marketing arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors,] were functional, I think I would argue that IIP should be transferred out of State and put into a functional international broadcasting entity (like VOA) since the line between electronic media has changed so dramatically. Unfortunately the IBB is dysfunctional too.
Is this a viable, even preferred, alternative to reconstituting the United States Information Agency?
The American approach to public service broadcasting, which is severely underfunded when compared to the rest of the world, is also legally separated from U.S. international broadcasting, a firewall that inhibits effective collaboration between either. Indeed, the problem is worse, as U.S.-funded international broadcasting is prohibited from disseminating its journalistic features within the U.S., a ban that prevents effective use of its significant journalistic resources by both public and private news networks in the United States. including a large sector of ethnic media that could surely benefit from the 60 languages that American international broadcasting reports in. For comparison, the BBC, the world’s most respected news institution, houses all of its international and domestic news services in the same newsroom, therefore maximizing the benefits of a diverse and large staff while limiting costly redundancies. This paper argues for further collaboration between government funded international broadcasting and its domestic counterparts — both public and private — and thus for policies that match the reality of today’s information ecology.
Shawn’s paper is a welcome contribution to the need to break down the firewall of the revised Smith-Mundt Act. The original purpose of the institutionalization of US international broadcasting in 1945 (the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was first introduced in October 1945) was to fill a gap in reaching non-US audiences that US media could not. Testifying before a House Appropriations Committee in 1946, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs stated the purpose of US government broadcasting:
Our number one policy is to encourage private agencies to do the job. We propose only to fill in the gaps where, and when private agencies cannot do the job.
Today, in a twist on the question about a tree in the forest, if America’s media does not cover an event, does it really happen? The retreat of US domestic media from overseas is troublesome for America’s global affairs. America’s media focus on speed over accuracy and a short-attention span prevents not only informing the American public, but of legislators, policy makers, and even the media itself.
Shawn’s paper should be required reading by Congress and the State Department.
One minor comment on the paper: Shawn implies the language “for examination only” in Section 501 of the Act / Section 1461 of US Code was in the original legislation. It was, in fact, inserted by Senator Fulbright.
According to the State Department, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy will hold a public meeting on February 11, 2010, in the conference room of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), 1850 K Street, NW, Fifth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20006. The meeting will be from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The Commissioners will discuss public diplomacy issues, including interagency collaboration in advancing U.S. government public diplomacy efforts.
The Advisory Commission was originally constituted as the Advisory Committee on Radio Programming by Assistant Secretary of State William Benton to provide oversight over America’s international broadcasting and to comfort Congress the programs would be responsibility administered. Members of this Committee included Edward R. Murrow as chairman, Philip H. Cohen, a director for radio and television programming for an advertising agency, Harold Laswell, Don Francisco, of the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson and formerly head of radio operations for the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), Walter Millis, editorial and staff writer for the New York Herald Tribune, Sterling Fisher, director of the National Broadcasting Corporation’s (NBC) University on the Air, Malcolm Muir, editor-in-chief and president of Newsweek as well as founder of BusinessWeek, and James Linen, publisher of Time magazine.
The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 made Benton’s committee permanent as the US Advisory Commission on Information. As a result of the abolishing of USIA in 1999, the Commission is now the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
Back to the February 11 meeting. I was previously scheduled to present to the Commission between 10a and 11:30a, so I will see you there.
The public may attend this meeting as seating capacity allows. To attend this meeting and for further information, please contact Carl Chan at (202) 632-2823; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At The Heritage Foundation December 9, 2009, 10a – 11:30a: The Abolition of USIA and Its Effects on U.S. Public Diplomacy. Speakers include Joe Duffey, Bill Kiehl, Stephen Johnson, Robert Schadler and hosted by Helle Dale.
Founded in 1953, the mission of the United States Information Agency (USIA) was to “understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions and their counterparts abroad.” For years, USIA was the U.S. government’s public diplomacy arm, charged with telling America’s story abroad. Ten years ago, USIA was disbanded and its functions were folded into the State Department under the management of Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. Since then, U.S. public diplomacy has fallen upon hard times. The new administration has repeatedly proclaimed that U.S. engagement in the world would be revitalized and yet there has been little change at U.S. foreign policy’s lead agency. Our panelists will analyze the changes that U.S. public diplomacy has gone through in the past 10 years and what should be done to improve America’s ability to “understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest.”
I won’t be there but RSVP here if you want to be there. I’m interested in your feedback on the discussion.
If you’ve looked into public diplomacy or the Smith-Mundt Act, you have likely come across this quote by Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE), or some paraphrased reference to it:
The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her.
Most likely, the text was standing alone and without any context of when and why the Senator said it, or perhaps even without a reference to who said it. In my experience, I have seen the quote in perhaps a dozen books, and some scholarly articles, and yet most of the time Zorinsky’s name is not given and never, not once, was a source given. The reader was left hanging.
The logical — and only — implication to be drawn from the quote when devoid of the original context was that the Government should not propagandize its people, then or today. Americans are comfortable with this idea, but the context here, like many other instances, really matters. The whole statement may cause you to reconsider what this line means.
Two reports I wanted to throw out into the wild for discussion. I’ll discuss in depth later.
Brand Sweden: The road to an updated image of Sweden abroad. I really enjoy speaking with Swedes about their public diplomacy. The Swedes really get the need to have a hub organizing that supports country-wide efforts. The chief of staff (strategy, evaluation, coordination etc.) at the Swedish Institute, a public agency (like the British Council or the Goethe Institute etc.) that is responsible for working with a huge part of Swedish public diplomacy as two titles, one in Swedish for Swedes (“Director of Coordination”) and the other in English for everybody else (“Director of Branding”).
The Foreign Ministry also understands the importance of perceptions, both local and global. The FM gives media training, with reminders on wallet cards o all member of the Ministry. The cards reminds the reader to Respect the role of the journalist; Be helpful in providing information; Never lie; Take the time to check facts; Assume you are on the record; and Stay calm. The card also provides a Swedish phone number to contact the press service, including a number to call after hours. (I should scan mine and post it up.)