Monday, March 7, 2011

Smith-Mundt: A necessary evil or outdated obstacle?

As we talked about in class, international broadcasting is one of the oldest forms of public diplomacy for a reason...communication is influence, and having a presence is a country speaks in and of itself, before you even consider the content.

The Smith-Mundt Act has considerable consequences for international broadcasting. We mentioned that one reason for its influence was to protect American citizens from propaganda aimed at foreign audiences. This seems to make sense to me when you consider WWII and the cold war. Say we fibbed a little bit in some broadcasts for the good of the Allied troops and the position of freedom and democracy. Would it have turned Americans against US policy in a time of war?

This also brings about the issue of Americans receiving propaganda. No matter how you define propaganda, it involves persuasion and that definitely happens everyday when the government tries to win our hearts and minds on an issue. So if we get our own propaganda anyway, will it help to be able to see and hear foreign broadcasts?

It seems to me that Americans receiving foreign broadcasts if Smith-Mundt was reversed is a null point. Considering the broadcasts are geared toward a audience that is probably not so democratic in the first place, it seems the message just wouldn't resonate here in the US. I understand the point that Americans could hold foreign broadcasts accountable by judging the messages for objectivity, but then again is international broadcasting really meant to be completely objective? Because if so, is it effective Public Diplomacy? It seems like the objective is to appear objective in order to have the most influence, which in that case, maybe Smith-Mundt should hold.


  1. Matt Armstrong provides a slightly different explanation of the rationale behind the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. According to Armstrong, the original intention was not to protect the domestic audience from government propaganda, but more to protect Americans from the State Department. At the time Congress described DOS as "chock full of Reds," "loafers," "drones," "incompetents," and being the "lousiest outfit in town." Interestingly, the word “propaganda” never appears anywhere in the Act.

    I agree with your post that U.S. international broadcasting should be available to the American public. Armstrong mentions that Smith-Mundt is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and any requests for information or products from the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors must be made through Congress, which takes time. He cites the example of requests made in 2009 by NATO, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins to screen a 2008 VOA documentary on poppies in Afghanistan. While the video has been available through VOA’s YouTube channel since it was produced, congressional approval still had not been granted as of the time of Armstrong’s article (August 2010).

    VOA’s broadcasts can also be accessed domestically through its websites. And similarly, the State Department’s website for international audiences ( can be accessed by Americans, but the domestic site ( is prohibited from linking to it.

    I’m wondering of everything can be accessed online, and if so, then Smith-Mundt seems to be completely unnecessary. I agree with Armstrong that “It is time the American taxpayer, and anyone in the U.S., be allowed to see, study, and share as they see fit what the government produces with public funds for audiences abroad.”

    Legislation was introduced in the House last year to modernize Smith-Mundt but as far as I can tell nothing much happened after it was referred to committee.

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  3. (Edited for format)
    I agree that the Smith-Mundt act is outdated and should be either modernized or abolished. As discussed above, with the internet Americans can access VOA, RFE and other US international broadcasting content pretty much whenever they want, so that portion of the act is now moot anyway. It also undermines the credibility of these outlets. They are trying to re-brand themselves as "credible journalists" (as Walter Isaacson, chair of the BBG said), instead of US propagandists, but why should foreign peoples listen to or believe them if the American people themselves can't even watch the broadcasts? It makes it seem as though they have something to hide.

    I found it rather ironic that in the "Celebrating 60 Years of RFE" reading, Isaacson said in his speech that America (and the BBG) should "be at the vanguard of the fight for Internet freedom," and undermine the "repression" of the free exchange of ideas (5); the BBG outlets "provide millions of citizens with the independent reliable news that those governments [China, Iran, etc.] are trying to supress,"(7); and realized during his time in Prague near the end of the Cold War that "in an age of satellites and in an age of the flow of information, those regimes that required the repression of information were going to loose"(2), while not mentioning anything about the repressive nature of the Smith-Mundt Act (or anything about it at all).

    While America doesn't have the same type of media oppression or intimidation as countries such as China and Iran, not being able to view, obtain permission to screen, or even submit FOIA requests pertaining to America's international broadcasting sounds suspiciously like a form of media and/or public information suppression (ok, it actually is).
    Allowing Americans to use and view the governments' international broadcasting could help the BBG's cause. It would promote the outlets and their funding among the American people (because right now few Americans probably even know these outlets still exist), give the American people in general another news source, and more specifically provide a source for diaspora communities in the US, and lend credibility to its work.

    Also, as Renée mentions above (quoting Armstrong), I think the American people deserve to be able to view the media the government is distributing in the name of the US produced with tax payer dollars.

    If, as they claim, the BBG is producing legitimate, unbiased and credible journalism, allowing Americans to view its broadcasts seems like it would only help the agency (besides its not like we don't already have biased media sources to counter it). Unless of course they're not being entirely truthful about their intentions or message. But why would the government ever lie about a thing like that?

  4. I agree with the statements above but I think also that the fear of subjecting the American public to propaganda meant for foreign publics is an unnecessary endeavor today. Unlike during the Cold War, people nowadays receive biased or slanted news coverage through cable networks and the like and as long as VOA for example is not the only broadcasting agent allowed the government should trust its citizens to choose their own media sources. It's surprising that in the current climate of anti-government and pro-transparency (supposedly) no one has mentioned the Smith-Mundt Act as a grounds for cutting off funds to the BBG.