A law went into effect this month that ends the ban on U.S. government-made propaganda from being broadcast to Americans. In a remarkably creative spin, the supporters of this law say that allowing Americans to see American propaganda is actually a victory for transparency.
As Foreign Policy's John Hudson explains, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 went into effect July 2, and allows government-made news — which includes products like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks — to reach Americans. In the 1970s Sen. William Fulbright said these outlets "should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics" because, as he and his allies argued, U.S. taxpayers should not have to pay for propaganda directed at them. But now these agencies say that's actually unfair to taxpayers. Broadcasting Board of Governors spokeswoman Lynne Weil told FP it's actually best for taxpayers to be able to see the propaganda, so they can serve as a check on it. "Now Americans will be able to know more about what they are paying for with their tax dollars--greater transparency is a win-win for all involved," she said. Likewise, a former government official said: "Previously, the legislation had the effect of clouding and hiding this stuff…. Now we'll have a better sense: Gee, some of this stuff is really good. Or gee, some of this stuff is really bad. At least we'll know now."
To be clear, only State Department-made news, not Pentagon-made news, will be available to Americans. Who are the targets? One example, Foreign Policy explains, is the Somali community in St. Paul, Minnesota. In Somalia, there are three choices for news, a government source said: "word of mouth, Al-Shabaab or VOA Somalia." While that's not true in Minnesota, the government still wants to reach Somalis: "Those people can get Al-Shabaab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn't get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia... It was silly."
Update: Weil strongly disputes that the Broadcasting Board of Governors programs are propaganda; she maintains its outlets "present fair and accurate news" (as she told Foreign Policy) and it employs many people who've worked as independent journalists to produce, as the official history of Radio Free Liberty and Radio Liberty reads, "a professional substitute for the free media" in countries where citizens wouldn't otherwise get them.
In a statement to The Atlantic Wire, Weil writes, "The professional journalists supported by the BBG are tasked with presenting accurate and objective news and information for audiences in many countries where it is difficult or impossible to receive locally-produced, uncensored or unbiased programs. They provide responsible discussion and open debate in places where this is rare in the media. To call these efforts ‘propaganda’ is a misuse of the term and an affront to our journalists, many of whom put themselves at great risk for this work."
But these activities are governed by the original Smith-Mundt Act [PDF], or the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, which authorized the State Department to create "an information service to disseminate abroad information about the United States, its people, and policies promulgated by the Congress, the President, the Secretary of State and other responsible officials of Government having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs." Because of fears that a government program pushing its foreign affairs agenda would amount to domestic propaganda, the original act spelled out that it was only authorizing the "dissemination abroad." And it is that restriction against domestic propaganda, which predates many of the programs overseen by the BBG, and indeed the BBG itself, that has been lifted by the new law, which refers to the media activities as part of the State Department and BBG's "public diplomacy information programs."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.