In May of last year I noted at this blog reports that an amendment had been slipped into the 2013 NDAA bill that nullified two U.S. laws – the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987 – that ban domestic propaganda. This month marks the official repeal.
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. 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 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.”
Hudson then goes on to interview a spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which produces government news for foreign audiences on “Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.” This spokesman promises, from the bottom of her heart, they don’t engage in propaganda.
BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil insists BBG 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 The Cable. She pointed to the charters of VOA and RFE: “Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible, discussion, and open debate.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth! The problem is, those engaged in propaganda for the government always deny – and indeed are virtually never aware – that they are engaged in propaganda. Today’s cable news companies, many of them owned by rent-seeking corporations with close ties and interests to the state, engage in propaganda all the time and continuously believe they are independent minds who report in a ‘fair and accurate’ way.
Take Glenn Greenwald’s recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He accused host Mika Brzezinski of issuing White House talking points on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, while masquerading it as a balanced debate. She seemed shocked at the accusation, which was true despite her own ignorance of it.
Look at how confused this BBC journalist is when Noam Chomsky tries to explain the propaganda model to him:
He thinks he’s an adversarial journalist, clearly. But of course, if he was a different kind of journalist with a different set of views (say, anti-government views), he may not be working for the BBC.
And so, Ms. Weil’s protestations about being engaged in propaganda cannot be trusted simply because she says so. As Hudson writes, “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 firmconfessed 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.
A primer on the history of U.S. propaganda might help in convincing Americans that propaganda isn’t just another one of those horrible things that every other government does but ours is different, better.
During the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson set up the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a propaganda ministry meant to build public support for the war effort. The CPI distributed propaganda in news stories, street posters, advertisements, and hollywood films. It launched pro-war lecture circuits to mobilize public opinion, and publicly criticizing the president or the war effort was essentially criminalized.
“The propagandists in World War II,” writes historian Susan A. Brewer, “followed in the footsteps of the Committee on Public Information, while attempting to avoid their predecessor’s mistakes.”
The OWI’s [Office of War Information] objective, acknowledged privately, was the “coordination, synchronization, embellishment, emphasis, manipulation and distribution of facts as information rather than…gross overstatements and exaggerated misrepresentations.” To mobilize the population, the OWI drew on familiar advertising techniques such as repetition, catchy slogans, and celebrity endorsement.
…On December 16, 1941, President Roosevelt set up the Office of Censorship, headed by Associated Press executive news editor Byron Price. The Office of Censorship had authority over all civilian communication…Before news organizations released a story, Price wanted them to ask themselves, “Is this information I would like to have if I were the enemy?” In a 1942 press conference, he and [OWI Director Elmer] Davis explained the relationship of the Office of Censorship and the OWI with the news media. Price announced, “We tell what they cannot print.” Davis said, “We give them stuff we hope they will print.”
For those who still doubt we’re at greater risk now, the question arises: why were these laws repealed? The BBG spokesman admits they want to target, for example, Somali expats, to give them an alternative to the Al-Shabab propaganda and outlets like Russia Today. Hm.