WASHINGTON — For decades, a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government’s mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But this month, that came silently to an end with the implementation of a reform passed in January. The result: an unleashing of thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption in a reform initially criticized as a green light for U.S. domestic propaganda efforts. So what just happened?
Until this month, 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. The programming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast: It’s viewed in more than 100 countries in 61 languages. The topics covered include human rights abuses in Iran; self-immolation in Tibet; human trafficking across Asia; and on-the-ground reporting in Egypt and Iraq.
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, D. In the 70s, 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, D, 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.”
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?
Spokeswoman Lynne Weil insists the Broadcasting Board of Governors 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 FP. She pointed to the charters of VOA and Radio Free Europe: “Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible, discussion and open debate.”
A former U.S. government source with knowledge of the Broadcasting Board says the organization is no Pravda, but it does advance U.S. interests in more subtle ways. In Somalia, for instance, VOA serves as counterprogramming to outlets peddling anti-American or jihadist sentiment. “Somalis have three options for news,” the source said, “word of mouth, Al-Shabaab or VOA Somalia.”
This partially explains the push to allow board broadcasts on local radio stations in the United States. The agency wants to reach diaspora communities, such as St. Paul Minnesota’s significant Somali expat community. “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,” the source said. “It was silly.”
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-Shabaab. “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.