Even if it may not seem that way sometimes, for decades in America, an anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government from unleashing their ginormous broadcasting arm to regularly deliver programming to audiences here in America. But earlier this month that law was quietly repealed, replaced by a new reform passed by Congress back in January. As a result, thousands of hours of government funded radio and tv programming per week is set to be unleashed on the American public. The reform has been roundly criticized by media watchdog organizations, and branded a green light for U.S. domestic agitprop efforts. (note: the article cited was written by the late Michael Hastings for Buzzfeed - well worth the read)
For decades, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has been producing such programs as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, all of which, by federal law, could only be viewed or listened to in foreign countries. U.S. produced programming varies in tone and quality but its reach is extensive, consumed in more than a hundred countries and available in sixty languages. Topics include human rights abuses in Iran, self-immolation in Tibet, human trafficking in Asia, and also on-the-ground reporting from Iraq and Egypt.
The restriction of these broadcasts was due to the Smith-Mundt Act, a long-standing piece of legislation that has been amended numerous times over the years, perhaps most consequentially by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. In the 1970s, Fulbright was no friend of VOA and Radio Free Europe, and moved to restrict them from domestic distribution, saying they "should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Fulbright's amendment to Smith-Mundt was bolstered in 1985 by Nebraska Senator Edward Zorinsky, who argued that such "propaganda" should be kept out of America as to distinguish the U.S. "from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity."It's not that these production companies are bad; they serve a valuable function for America. It's just not a function beneficial to an American audience. The broadcasting arm of the U.S. government was created to advance and enhance international hegemonic interests. Or in D.C. speak: "... spreading freedom." That's all. Unleashed on the American public, the agitprop will compete with the corporate media, which is already laden with sponsored propaganda. Between the two, I fear the already marginalized independent media in this country will be squeezed out altogether.
Foreign Policy gives us the unfortunate news:
Zorinsky and Fulbright sold their amendments on sensible rhetoric: American taxpayers shouldn't be funding propaganda for American audiences. So did Congress just tear down the American public's last defense against domestic propaganda?I'm shocked that a spokeswoman for the BBG would deny the "favorable light" aspect.
BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil insists BBG is not a propaganda outlet, and its flagship services such as VOA "present fair and accurate news."
"They don't shy away from stories that don't shed the best light on the United States," she told The Cable. She pointed to the charters of VOA and RFE: "Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate."
Lynne added that the reform has a transparency benefit as well. "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. And so with that we have the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which passed as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, and went into effect this month.
The stated goal of the agency is to reach diaspora communities like St. Paul, Minnesota where they have significant numbers of Somalia expats.
"Those people can get al-Shabab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn't get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia," the source said. "It was silly."Competing realities?
But if anyone needed a reminder of the dangers of domestic propaganda efforts, the past 12 months provided ample reasons. Last year, two USA Today journalists were ensnared in a propaganda campaign after reporting about millions of dollars in back taxes owed by the Pentagon's top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan. Eventually, one of the co-owners of the firm confessed to creating phony websites and Twitter accounts to smear the journalists anonymously. Additionally, just this month, the Washington Post exposed a counter-propaganda program by the Pentagon that recommended posting comments on a U.S. website run by a Somali expat with readers opposing al-Shabab. "Today, the military is more focused on manipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, by posting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership," reported the Post.References to Pentagon agitprop are repulsive to BBG officials. And they may be correct in one way. The Smith-Mundt Act never officially applied to the Defense Dept., a common misconception. Normally, the State Dept. has been charged with generating foreign propaganda. However, it's unclear if those rules will change now.
One thing is crystal clear though, the blurring of the lines between truth and agitprop will now become even more opaque for an American audience that, for whatever reason, doesn't really make too much of an effort to stay informed. The potential for government misuse here is substantial. To me, it's just another in a series of concerted, subtle efforts by the U.S. government to control the retail dissemination of information in America.