I frequently teach a large introductory class titled “Foundations of Journalism and Mass Communication.” One section of the course addresses international news in the United States as well as global media trends and public diplomacy issues. At one point, I usually ask the class of 160 undergraduates how many of them have heard of Voice of America. The answer is always the same: very few.
VOA is one of the United States’s international broadcasters. It’s fully funded by our federal government, with an annual operating budget of more $200 million. VOA works with 1,200 affiliates worldwide and produces content in 43 languages. And yet, the broadcaster that has been telling America’s story to the world for 70 years is largely unknown to American audiences. There’s a reason for that. It’s called the Smith-Mundt Act.
Smith-Mundt, formally known as the US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 80-402), is the legislation governing US public diplomacy efforts, enabling “the Government of the United States to promote a better understanding of the United States in other countries, and to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” It authorized the Department of State to create and distribute “information about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, and other information media.” The law doesn’t preclude someone inside the US from using the material, one expert recently wrote, just that it not be available here.
The original legislation was passed amid concerns that the Soviet Union was spreading misinformation about the United States in Europe in the days following World War II. Congress wanted to ensure that the US wasn’t being misrepresented abroad.
The broadcaster that eventually evolved into Voice of America had its first home in the Office of War Information and thus an early association with propaganda. But it subsequently proclaimed a commitment to professional journalism and attracted journalists and media personalities like Edward R. Murrow, Orson Welles, John Houseman, and John Chancellor. Indeed, it’s now headed by former CNN, NPR, and ABC journalist David Ensor.
In the midst of formalizing VOA’s postwar role, Smith-Mundt was passed with the proviso that its content would not be available in real time to domestic audiences. This was to allay concern that the private US broadcast industry would be unable to compete with a well-funded government broadcaster. But gradual changes in the domestic political environment—including McCarthy-era fears of State Department communist infiltration leading to contamination of the message broadcast overseas—led Congress to increasingly restrict the public’s access to VOA, ultimately passing a formal dissemination ban in 1972.
Its complicated history isn’t easily summarized, but as an academic who has written about the legislation, its history, and its modern day implications, I argue that it’s still inaccurate to describe the bill as a “1948 law devised to prevent the government from turning its propaganda machine on its own citizens,” as The New York Times did last year. It’s inaccurate because congressional debate from 1948 makes no mention of concerns about international broadcast content having a negative effect on the American population. Concern about propaganda or leakage of government messages into the domestic media environment were imposed by later amendments.
Still, it’s not surprising that the recent introduction of legislation to amend the Smith-Mundt Act and repeal the domestic dissemination ban on US international broadcast content has caused worried coverage about giving the government license to subject its own citizens to propaganda. A headline on BuzzFeed last week, for example, declared, “Congressmen Seek To Lift Propaganda Ban.” A leading foreign policy blogger declared the change would “allow the Department of Defense to subject the US domestic public to propaganda.” (The DOD has never been subject to the ban). A reporter from The Christian Science Monitor tweeted, “What I want is to make it harder, not easier, to propagandize our citizens.”
They need not worry. The proposed change pertains only to government-funded, civilian international broadcasters. Changing the law as H.R. 5736 proposes would have no effect on restricting the Department of Defense or other government agencies from producing content for audiences in the United States or elsewhere, because the law doesn’t currently impose any.
That’s not to say the proposed repeal shouldn’t raise questions. It should, but not questions about propagandizing US citizens. The questions should focus on why we’re so worried about the content we screen overseas, and why we haven’t gained official access to said content sooner in the current porous media environment.
We can’t, as of now, really know whether the content of VOA is in fact truthful or propagandistic, routinely biased for or against the United States, whether the content champions or condemns American foreign policy. This content, broadcast to audiences around the world, can be exempted from American freedom of information requests, and American ethnic media outlets are prevented from rebroadcasting news that would serve their communities. With the ban, all we know for certain is that content is financed by the US government. This doesn’t necessarily make it propaganda, but it certainly does make the content worthy of the same scrutiny savvy audiences apply to all media.
Smith-Mundt also needs amending because it doesn’t make sense to officially restrict content that US citizens can easily find online. Case in point: a documentary about opium production in Afghanistan can’t officially be shown on a US college campus even though the footage is easily available on YouTube. Domestic barriers to access have impeded coverage stateside, preventing the kinds of investigative reports and scholarly studies allowing journalists and academics to look at how the US depicts itself internationally. It’s appropriate to begin pulling back the veil on discussion of all these issues.
The proposed change to the Smith-Mundt Act will bring the law into the 21st century and give Americans access to the same content as audiences around the world. What took so long?