This month, Americans finally got the opportunity to watch and listen to news programming that the U.S. government has been broadcasting to the rest of the world for decades. This is a good thing. Americans should benefit from and be informed about the news that their tax dollars pay for — to the tune of $730 million annually.
This change in international broadcasting policy was made by the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act, signed by President Barack Obama in January. The revision took effect on July 2.
Provisions in the original Smith–Mundt Act, which authorized U.S. public diplomacy including international broadcasting, had prohibited the domestic dissemination of any public diplomacy products aimed at foreign audiences. A relic of the Cold War, the restriction produced a bizarre distortion in the age of the Internet and global mass media.
Americans could watch programs produced by Russia’s state-owned Russia Today, China’s CCTV, Qatar’s Al Jazeera, and Britain’s BBC World Service on their televisions, but not the actual broadcasts of Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia (RFA), or any of the other U.S.-funded broadcasters. Americans could access them only via their websites.
Much commentary has focused on the fear that the U.S. government will now be able to propagandize its own citizens, with some opinions bordering on hysteria. These reactions ignore several important facts:
- Americans have free media and a vast number of news sources. They are free to judge for themselves what they trust.
- The programming produced by U.S. international broadcasting in 59 different languages is not Stalin-style propaganda, but world news collected and written by credible, dedicated professionals—although they are certainly not above criticism.
- Many American news organizations have cut back on international bureaus for budgetary reasons. Taking advantage of international broadcasting that we have already paid for makes a lot of sense.
- The revision specifically prohibits the government from requiring domestic stations to carry its programming or even pitching it to them.
According to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), domestic stations have already expressed some interest, but it has hardly been an avalanche. This week, a report about Burma appeared on The NewsHour on PBS. It included exclusive video from Radio Free Asia of the mob violence in Meiktila last March. The NewsHour had read about the video, contacted RFA, and broadcast the video with a chyron on-screen crediting RFA for the tape. Some 20 requests for broadcast materials have come in from independent stations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and other locations. These are under contract negotiation.
The most salient caution has come from Ted Lipien, a former VOA senior employee and producer of the BBGWatch website:
I trust Voice of America journalists, but I don’t trust some of those in charge of VOA. This is just a warning, but the American public and Congress need to pay close attention to how Voice of America news operation is managed by those in charge and demand from them full transparency and accountability. Otherwise, things can and will go wrong.
Given the management problems that tend to beset the BBG, transparency is essential as it embarks on a new era in broadcasting.