Op-Ed: US propaganda ban overturned with help of government propaganda | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published July 16, 2013 by Digital Journal

Washington – Government officials used deceptive propaganda to get congress to overturn a ban on government news distribution in the U.S.

Would government officials resort to deceptive propaganda to help them get the U.S. Congress to overturn an old law, the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibited them from distributing government-funded news to Americans? 

They most certainly did by telling members of the U.S. Congress that Americans were somehow denied having any kind of access to Voice of America (VOA) news and that great many Americans were demanding that the law be changed.

These claims advanced by officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a bureaucratic subdivision within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and a few of their outside supporters, were complete lies. 

Until recently, more than 99.9 percent of Americans could not have cared less about this issue and nearly all of them, if they truly cared, already had access on the Internet to nearly every Voice of America news program. But Americans may now start asking questions after numerous reports in mainstream media and in blogs pointed out that they may become a target of government “propaganda news.” “U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans,” John Hudson, The CableForeign Affairs, July 14, 2013. 

There is a lot of confusion about the old law and the new one, which is what government bureaucrats were counting on to get what they wanted. The old Smith-Mundt Act did not make it impossible or illegal for Americans to hear Voice of America broadcasts. They could get VOA radio broadcasts on shortwave and later on the Internet or on satellite television audio channels. 

Moreover, the old law did not ban Americans or American media from using and distributing Voice of America news and other programs in any way they chose. American radio and television stations could get them off the Internet or from communications satellites, if the signal was not scrambled, and legally rebroadcast them in the United States. Some ethnic stations did. Everybody else could get VOA news and programs on the Internet, where many Americans now look for news anyway. 

A problem was artificially created and presented by government officials to get their way and to put the rest of Americans potentially at risk. The change in the law may also harm VOA overseas audiences, as officials are likely to pay less attention to them and more to their bureaucratic expansion plans in the United States.

What the old law did was to prohibit U.S. government officials–not ordinary American citizens or American media outlets–from actively assisting in making the programs available in the United States or to otherwise distribute, market or advertise them domestically.

The old law and the ban applied to U.S. government officials only. They did not like it.

With the new law, U.S. government officials received new powers. Americans gained nothing than they did not already have. What the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act did was to expose Americans to potential abuse of government powers in the field of news. Placed in the wrong hands, Voice of America news, which so far has remained accurate and generally balanced, may become biased or turned into propaganda. That is the real story behind deceptive government propaganda to get the Smith-Mundt Act modified.

It was only in the interest of a few government officials and possibly some consultants and contractors who saw an opportunity to make money to get the old law changed. It did not bother anybody else. But International Broadcasting Bureau officials and their spokespersons made it sound as if Americans and ethnic communities were somehow completely deprived of access to VOA news and demanding such access with great passion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The media serving these ethnic communities are not stupid. They knew exactly where to find VOA news programs and how to use them if they wanted to. Many did with no problems whatsoever. 

The old law and the new law also apply to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) programs, which include Radio and TV Marti. They do not apply to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) programs of Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. These media outlets fall under the Broadcasting Board of Governors and are also 100 percent funded by American taxpayers, but they are private 501(c)3 organizations which copyright their programs without any compelling reason. Government officials are not trying to clear up this confusion because it strengthened their argument for repealing the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions. I have argued that these programs should also be put in the public domain or offered under Creative Commons licenses without giving government officials the power to distribute them in the United States. Those who want to use them should be able to use them. 

A proper and safe way to modify the Smith-Mundt Act would have been to put all U.S. government-funded media programs in the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses without giving government officials any additional powers. In any case, VOA programs were already in the public domain.

To further confuse members of congress and other Americans, IBB officials and their supporters even resorted to telling a highly deceptive story about a public station in Minnesota calling VOA with a question about using a VOA Somali radio broadcast for the local Somali community and being told that VOA can’t provide it. The last part was true then, but the station’s legal department could have easily told the management that they could take the audio off the Internet and legally use it. The station could have also called the BBG’s Office of General Counsel and ask what the law really said. 

The old law said that government officials can’t provide VOA programs to Americans. It said nothing about American citizens and American stations getting them on their own. These programs were already in the public domain. American taxpayers paid for them and could use them. The old law did not prohibit such use.

Another false and deceptive argument used by IBB officials was that foreign governments and stations were pointing to the Smith-Mudt Act restriction on domestic U.S. distribution as an excuse to deny permission for rebroadcasts of VOA programs in their own countries or to claim that these programs are indeed propaganda because they can’t be distributed in America. As someone who was in charge of marketing these programs overseas, I know that this is not a serious argument. Foreign governments either allow local rebroadcasts of VOA programs or they don’t based on their own interests and fears. They are also not naive. 

U.S. government spokespersons still claim that the modification of the law will somehow let more Americans know about what VOA produces with their tax money. This is again a completely deceptive claim. Those Americans who want to know already know. Unless government officials invest heavily in producing, advertising and marketing news and other programs specifically for the domestic market–which is what they really want–not too many people will care to use them. What may happen is that limited government resources will be wasted on domestic marketing of programs which don’t need to be marketed and which most Americans don’t want.

The main reason IBB officials wanted to have the law changed was to claim an additional audience in the United States because they have not been doing a good job overseas. Their agency has been terribly mismanaged. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “defunct” in engaging foreign audiences. Officials saw domestic news distribution as something that might help to save their jobs. That is the main reason for their advocacy to get the law changed. Other government officials, for example the State Department, joined in because they also want to expand their outreach to domestic groups to justify more funding.

IBB officials also assumed naively that ethnic communities would support demands for more funding for their agency. Actually, the opposite may happen. IBB has closed many of VOA’s language services and caused news coverage to deteriorate to the point where independent Russian media experts in Russia were complaining that VOA Russian news reports had a “pro-Putin bias.” Russian-Americans would complain even more. I suspect they won’t be bothered one way or another because they could already hear the programs on the Internet and Russian-American stations did not use them. Some, however, use Voice of Russia and Russia Today programs from Russia. If they wanted VOA programs, they would have used them too.

The reason for not using them may be that U.S. government officials have mismanaged the Voice of America to such a degree that it is no longer capable of offering original coverage of important news developments overseas and in the U.S. They invested hundreds of millions of dollars in digital technology but failed miserably in attracting audiences through social media while in the process largely destroying VOA’s capability to offer interesting content.

Because they cut programs and limited original news coverage, top seven news on the Voice of America English website usually get no more than a few dozen Facebook “Likes” and Tweets, while similar top news stories on Al Jazeera, BBC and Russia Today can get thousands or even hundreds of thousands of social media engagement points. If Americans went to the VOA English website, they would be surprised how limited its news coverage is. Some of its top news items are not originated by VOA but consist of short reports from Reuters. Government officials in charge of Voice of America are to blame. They have not been able to increase their global audience to even keep up with world population growth, not to mention the tremendous growth in Internet use.

If more Americans knew what is has happened to VOA, I don’t think they would want these managers to be in charge of news for either Americans or for foreign audiences. Americans would certainly demand that these officials be replaced if they knew how they mistreat their own journalists, attack their critics, and refuse to answer questions from journalists. Members of VOA’s bipartisan oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, are appalled, but even they seem to be powerless against the ever growing government bureaucracy of the IBB.

On the positive side, American taxpayers are still willing to pay for Voice of America news programs to countries without free media. They correctly see it as important for U.S. national security and as a humanitarian investment. But American taxpayers will not pay for government news for Americans. 

IBB officials have been so removed from these political realities that they made a serious misjudgment when they lied about the need to modify the Smith-Mundt Act in the way it was done. Their advocacy for the new law will cause them to lose support for funding at home and may harm overseas audiences who are the ones who really need uncensored news, for which Americans have been willing to pay at least until now. The change in the Smith-Mundt Act may have long-term negative public relations and budgetary effects for U.S. international broadcasting.

But knowing how stubborn these government bureaucrats are, they will no doubt preserve. I fear that they will further limit programs for overseas audiences to satisfy their ambitions to become more of a domestic media outlet. They seem to suffer from delusion of grandeur in thinking that they can create an international/domestic broadcaster like BBC. That simply is not part of the American media tradition and they should have known this. American taxpayers will not pay for it. 

IBB bureaucrats’ solution is to privatize and de-federalize Voice of America but still look to the government for 100 percent of its funding. That may make VOA even more subject to political influence by those in charge who will be even less accountable than government bureaucrats are now. The storm of negative publicity to government-funded news for Americans is a powerful reminder that Americans will not tolerate their government trying to expand into politically sensitive area of domestic media. 

But fears about domestic U.S. government propaganda may be somewhat overblown, although one must always be on guard, especially if the current IBB management team is not soon replaced. There are still many excellent journalists working at the Voice of America. They would not produce biased news. VOA has a Charter, which is the law of the land, and theoretically it protects VOA journalists from government interference with news content. But the Charter does not protect them completely from government officials in charge of the programs. They have done a lot of damage and they could do much more damage if left to their own devices.

All in all, I am not terribly afraid of Voice of America news being distributed in the United States. I believe in media freedom and support VOA programs being available to anyone who wants them. What I am afraid of are government officials who have been dishonest about the old Smith-Mundt Act and deceptive about the new law. They or their successors may try to abuse it in the future. No matter who is in the White House, Democratic or Republican administrations can potentially use the new powers to spread their government propaganda domestically. 

But the question to ask for now is: would you trust current government bureaucrats in charge of Voice of America who attack professional reputation of American journalists and refuse to answer their questions to be producing your news? I would not if only on the basis of what happened to two American journalists, Matthew Russell Lee and Gary Thomas, who have been victims of vindictive attacks initiated from within VOA’s government bureaucracy. 

The best solution would be to replace top bureaucrats running U.S. international broadcasting. But if this is not possible, they for sure need to be carefully watched. The power of propaganda has been put in their hands with the use of deceptive government propaganda of their own making. It would have been much better to leave the old Smith-Mundt Act in place or to change it in such a way that it would only benefit the public, not government officials. Americans need to remain vigilant. 

Ted Lipien is an independent journalist, writer and media freedom activist. He retired from Voice of America in 2006 as acting Associate Director.

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