behind the news

Smith-Mundt reform: In with a whimper?

It's now legal to broadcast Voice of America stateside, but few seem to notice
January 21, 2013

Last spring, there was a spate of commentary about Congressional efforts to relax the domestic dissemination ban on content produced for foreign audiences by US government-sponsored broadcasters. Imposed by a series of amendments to the US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, they prevented the likes of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia from being distributed in the United States. The ban was passed in 1972, in the wake of McCarthy-era fears of a communist infiltration leading to contamination of the message broadcast overseas.

When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law in early January, he authorized implementation of the Smith Mundt Modernization Act, eliminating the domestic dissemination ban. In contrast to the alarmist punditry that surfaced last May–critics said that a repeal would allow the US to subject its own citizens to propaganda–the actual change has prompted little discussion outside of public diplomacy and international broadcast circles.

As of July 1, 2013, content produced by the five US government-sponsored broadcasters, all overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, will no longer be subject to the ban. In practice, not much will change. As one longtime US international broadcasting expert observed, the legislation simply changes the legal status of an already hard-to-enforce ban, “allowing de jure to catch up with de facto.” A formal statement from Voice of America, the flagship US international broadcaster, praised the change, emphasizing both the resulting transparency and the opportunity it now offers for Americans to learn more about this US foreign policy tool. As one board member declared, “All Americans will now have access to the vital and informative reporting of our accomplished journalists around the world who are working under difficult circumstances in closed societies and developing countries.”

Spurred by a line in a New York Times article that called the US government “the largest broadcaster that few Americans know about,” I did a LexisNexis search for and analysis of major American print media outlets’ coverage of Voice of America over a recent two-year period. Both as a subject and as a source of news, it was only mentioned 188 times during the two-year period considered. (A similar search for “CNN” yielded more than 2,000 mentions–in The New York Times alone.)

Seventy-six percent of the VOA mentions referred to the organization itself, providing context about VOA, mentioning its relationship to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and alluding to the role of VOA in inspiring the audiences of less-than-free societies. There was frequent reference to VOA’s role in the Cold War, particularly in the presentation of profiles of dissidents and leaders from that period. There were also several mentions of Voice of America’s continued efforts to provide content to audiences in China and Iran in addition to those governments’ ongoing efforts to block delivery of such content.

Only 12 percent of the references to Voice of America directly quoted reporting done by the broadcaster and just another 3 percent of the references used indirect quotes from the news organization. Thus, although VOA is well regarded as a news source overseas, only 15 percent of the already-limited references to VOA in the American print media examined contained any content attributed to the broadcaster.

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That such references appear at all, however, suggests that major American print media outlets do follow VOA’s reporting. It is in this context that the repeal of the domestic dissemination ban may have the greatest impact. With the ban’s removal, there is no longer any question about whether it is legal to refer to or to use VOA or other international broadcasting content in domestic news. The benefits of such usage are manifold. Not the least of these potential benefits is the fact that, as a media organization with a budget of more than $700 million and content produced in more than 50 languages, the Broadcasting Board of Governors’s five broadcasters may prove to be a rich source of internationally oriented content for mainstream American news organizations and for ethnic media outlets.

The repeal of the domestic dissemination ban happened quietly, and it’s possible there will yet be fallout as awareness of the action spreads. But when it comes to US international broadcasting, uneasiness about potential propaganda can give way to the American public finally getting the chance to judge for itself.

Emily T. Metzgar is a former US diplomat and a professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism