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Move to change propaganda laws opens up Cold War argument

Move to change propaganda laws opens up Cold War argument

An old Cold War argument has been resurrected with the news that an amendment allowing U.S. propaganda to be broadcast within our borders has been passed out of the house along with the Defense Authorization Act.

Should the State Department be authorized to allow its propaganda to be broadcast to us in the U.S.?

Or, should we maintain the separation barring U.S. propaganda produced for foreign audiences from being broadcast in the U.S.?

Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) in their “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012” (H.R. 5736), suggest the former–that it is time to free up the authority to broadcast U.S.-produced foreign propaganda in the U.S.

Their bill was included as amendment 114 to the Defense Authorization Act and passed out of the House on Friday, May 18. It would amend two existing acts: the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (1987).

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 provides for the terms of public diplomacy (non-military) by authorizing the State Department to communicate with foreign audiences through a variety of means, from broadcast to publishing of books, media, and online sources of information. Its original supporters argued that it was needed during the Cold War in order to combat Soviet propaganda. In the 1990s, the mission took on the form of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In 1972, it was amended to prohibit domestic access to the information that was intended for foreign audiences.

The text of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act (2012) provides:

Sec. 501. (a) The Secretary and the Broadcasting Board of Governors are authorized to use funds appropriated or otherwise made available for public diplomacy information programs to provide for the preparation, dissemination, and use of information intended for foreign audiences abroad about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, the Internet, and other information media, including social media, and through information centers, instructors, and other direct or indirect means of communication.

(b)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), the Secretary and the Broadcasting Board of Governors may, upon request and reimbursement of the reasonable costs incurred in fulfilling such a request, make available, in the United States, motion pictures, films, video, audio, and other materials prepared for dissemination abroad or disseminated abroad.

A press release from Representative Thornberry stresses the need to modernize the law:

“We continue to face a multitude of threats and we need to be able to counter them in a multitude of ways.  Communication is among the most important,” said Rep. Thornberry.  “This outdated law ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible and transparent way. Congress has a responsibility to fix the situation,” Thornberry said.

“While the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the conflicts of today.”

Because the amendment was attached to the Defense Authorization Act, it didn’t garner much attention. Michael Hastings at Buzzfeed writes:

The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

Historically, there were concerns about the powers it the Smith-Mundt Act originally provided the federal government, especially in times of peace. According to the book The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 1945-1953:

Underlying Truman’s actions was the liberal proposition that the federal government could promote peace and correct misunderstandings about the United States by disseminating “full and fair” information to foreign publics….Truman’s executive order challenged the argument that propaganda was required only during war.

From the conservative point of view, liberal Democrats had spread, at great financial cost, the powers and responsibilities of the federal government into areas in which it had no prerogative, and the VOA was just another exanmple of this encroachments.

And, take a look at the Broadcasting Board of Governors website. There is an error in their mission statement. While it may seem insignificant, if they’re in charge of communicating, among other things, American values, they ought to be more specific:

To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

As we have seen with the Occupy protesters, who are calling for “democracy,” there is a world of difference between democracy and representative republic. But Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner argues that Smith-Mundt “creates and encourages opposing views in how we operate and organize.”

Would you like to have greater access to U.S.-produced foreign propaganda, or does that allow the federal government powers it ought not have?


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We get enough propaganda from the White House and the MSM. We don’t need any more.

If we’re telling the rest of the world how great and good our President is, why not share the good news with Americans too? There can be no better use of government funds. I’m sure that David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett agree.

The bill passed the Republican House. Things have been looking better than I expected wrt replacing Obama, so this is a timely reminder that the GOP remains the Stupid Party.

In American media there are daily opinion pieces, originating from, but not attributed to, e.g. Russian or Iranian state TV. These are aimed at canvassing the credulous. It would appear ludicrous to restrict the State Department’s rebuttal because the refutation was originally intended for a foreign audience. While it’s true that an uninformed reader/viewer wouldn’t know whether the SD’s info were reliable, neither would he be able to ascertain a leak attributed to unnamed SD sources. Either we have a vigilant free press, or we have not.

This can’t be good.

Just think what messages Obama would have been pumping out across our airwaves, paid for with tax dollars, over the past 3 years.

chilipalmer | May 21, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Much of the GOP House needs to be replaced and possibly placed under psychiatric observation. The Buzzfeed piece says the Pentagon already spends $4 billion a year on propaganda. And that the DoD spent $200 million in 2011 alone on propaganda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans think we need to be fed more lies. Like the one recently about how Mexicans are going back home because of the bad economy here that was revealed to be a fake, initiated by the Obama admin. via Pew. The single biggest problem in this country is the media. The GOP House wants to give them more power, make them a bigger weapon against us irritating citizens.

    Mary Sue in reply to chilipalmer. | May 21, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    LOL, did anyone see Sarah Palin on Hannity say some in the “GOP have the fighting instinct of Mr. Snuffleupagus”?

    raven in reply to chilipalmer. | May 21, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    “The single biggest problem in this country is the media.”

    I agree.

    martywd in reply to chilipalmer. | May 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Like the one recently about how Mexicans are going back home because of the bad economy here that was revealed to be a fake, initiated by the Obama admin.

    I’d like to see source link for the above?   Anyone?

      chilipalmer in reply to martywd. | May 22, 2012 at 1:59 am

      You asked for the link to the story that Mexicans going back home due to poor US economy was fake: 5/14/12, “Border agents dispute claim that illegal immigrant tide is slowing,” Washington Examiner, Sara A. Carter

        martywd in reply to chilipalmer. | May 22, 2012 at 10:27 am

        Thanks for the link.   It would appear your ‘propaganda’ claim holds water.

        For anyone interested in reading, what may be, the article that began the spread of the ‘Mexican’s leaving…’ meme (I’m not going to hot link it!), do a search for:  For first time since Depression, more Mexicans leave U.S. than enter.   The article is at WoPo, published: Apr 23, author: Tara Bahrampour.

I understand there’s another amendment to the bill causing great distress to the White House — one which would honor the slain and wounded soldiers of the Ft. Hood attack with Purple Hearts. Obama objects — this wasn’t a terrorist attack you see, but an ordinary crime, and radical Islam cannot be officially recognized as an actual enemy.

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | May 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Nineteen eighty-four.

Can you imagine the ludicrous ideas an administration that decides to insert Obama in pages of history might come up with when tasked with producing “propaganda”? The mind reels.

Is it just me,or does this seem rather superfluous? I think our government has been doing a pretty good job already. Seems to me that we now have one more who needs to be primaried in 2014. Nice this could come out a week before our primary here in TX./sarc

Doesn’t the government already spend considerable funds to propagandize through PBS, Dept of Ed, Commerce to name a few, Free Broadcast licenses to its supporters, favorable copyright monopolies, and other forms subsidies? Why all the hate for the rather innocuous State Dept? Considering how inept the State dept has been getting our message across to foreign audiences, why doe anyone think they would be more effective at home?

Smith-Mundt Act Modifications Lack Protections Against Abuse

While the independent, nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting,, supports some changes in the Smith-Mundt Act, we and many other media freedom advocates share grave concerns that officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will use the new legislation to abandon some foreign audiences in countries ruled by repressive regimes to focus more on the US media market and on domestic public relations. This bill empowers government bureaucrats without placing on them any meaningful restraints or offering clear rules on how the law should be implemented. If it is not modified, the proposed law can lead to tremendous abuse, diminished ability to inform and influence foreign public opinion and, above all, to wasting of taxpayers’ money.

The lack of clarity in the current bill presents a real threat because of the BBG’s track record in seeking easy higher audience ratings abroad by downplaying hard news and human rights reporting. BBG officials have been eliminating or trying to eliminate Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting services to countries like Russia and China and are focusing instead on providing lifestyle and educational content. The new legislation will make it easier for these officials to divert money and other resources from serving foreign audiences with comprehensive analysis of current events to producing easy to place programs, not just for foreign but also for domestic broadcasters.

BBG Watch has more at:

[…] an article posted on correctly noted, this bill has already been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives…. […]

[…] an article posted on correctly noted, this bill has already been passed by the U.S. House of […]

Do I lose my “Conservative Card” if I don’t hyperventilate over this? I actually believe it’s a GOOD thing I get to hear what we are telling people overseas.

In 1972, it was amended to prohibit domestic access to the information that was intended for foreign audiences.

*Prohibit* me from seeing it? Why? What are they TELLING people?

Basically, I see this as a way of allowing the State Dept. and whomever to post videos on YouTube. If they were prohibited from allowing me to access it before, YouTube vids would have been a violation. A badly written or thought out law will have bad consequences, yes… but sometimes they really ARE trying to fix things.

I know. Pollyanna. But I prefer it to Paranoia.

The last bit of government propaganda I recall seeing that would be effected by this proposal was a film in the early 1960’s, State Depart or DOD or both produced it. In it, a young American Army LT is leading a small unit (probably a platoon) of SVN Army or militia troops around to several villages. At each village, the officer asks the village headman how things have improved since the American Army’s assistance program to the ARVN began and in each village the headman gives a variation on, “Oh, things are just wonderful; much improved”, etc. Need I say? The LT cannot speak Vietnamese, neither can the headmen speak English, so an interpreter handles the chore. A young Vietnamese student friend of mine and I saw the film together and when he told me that the interpreter was telling each headman a variant of “Look around and mumble something or I’ll cut your head off.” and the old man was doing so I almost feel off my chair in the theater laughing. What is my point? The government, those 40+ years ago … oops, 50 years already? … had some degree of competence, but assumed as they all do that we’re ignorant. This government is so incompetent that they are nearly achieving the status of “Barnum & Balley’s Best Clowns”. That lack of ability or skill at pretty much anything isn’t limited to Democratic office-holders and their flunkies, so I would expect that and new propaganda releases would be ever more obviously nonsense and fake. Not much additional threat to the Republic there. Keep your eyes on the real issues and fuss about them, not on how the Congress is trying to increase our daily laugh quotient.

This sort of thing is why I reluctantly vote Republican if there is no worthy Libertarian candidate available. The STUPID Party, indeed.