With the updating of the Smith-Mundt Act, some are criticizing the repeal of rules that banned certain government-sponsored news broadcasts–such as Voice of America–from being aired inside the USA.
John Hudson of Foreign Policy, for instance, calls the move a “repeal” of the ban on government propaganda and says it will unleash “thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption.”
“Until this month,” Hudson says, “a vast ocean of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed or listened to at broadcast quality in foreign countries.”
But with new amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act, those broadcast outlets will for the first time be allowed to broadcast inside the USA programming meant to appeal to specific communities.
Voice of America is valued by many for having brought news of the outside world to millions of news hungry Soviets during the Cold War and many Poles credit the American-sponsored radio broadcasts with helping to free Poland from the grip of the Soviet Union.
One community that these government-sponsored programs are targeting today is the Somali community. VOA and other government broadcast agencies want to be able to serve the immigrant community here in the USA as well as their compatriots in Somalia itself.
Hudson quotes an unnamed, former government official saying that Somalis are indeed an important audience of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). “Somalis have three options for news, word of mouth, al-Shabab, or VOA Somalia.” But once they get here immigrants lose touch with VOA.
“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. It was silly,” Hudson’s source told him.
A writer for Buzzfeed initially blasted the amending of Smith-Mundt saying that now the Department of Defense would be able to begin propagandizing American citizens directly.
As it happens, though, Buzzfeeder Michael Hastings was not well enough informed about the amendments. Smith-Mundt only applies to the Department of State and the agencies created by the federal government to disseminate information abroad, not any and all agencies and departments of the federal government.
Still, not everyone is completely comfortable with the changes. Tim Cushing of TechDirt.com noted his discomfort saying, “The fact that the State Department is behind the effort doesn’t do much to allay fears that the BBG will become a tool of domestic propaganda.”
On the other hand, Cushing also points out that the progressive media is already a mouthpiece for the government all too often. Cushing ruefully says that the media “haven’t shown much reluctance to regurgitate talking points, which almost makes the BBG’s efforts seem redundant.”
Despite the criticism, BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil says that their news product is independent, free of outright propaganda, and presents “fair and accurate news.”
“[The broadcasts] don’t shy away from stories that don’t shed the best light on the United States,” Weil said. “Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”
Hudson seems to agree that the updated law has its advantages. “But now that its materials are allowed to be broadcast by local radio stations and TV networks, they won’t be a complete mystery to Americans,” he wrote.
“Previously, the legislation had the effect of clouding and hiding this stuff,” Hudson’s inside source told him. “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.”