Media and Public Diplomacy: a look back at the relationship sixty years ago

What is the role of media in public diplomacy? Is it a watch dog? I would say yes, if they only reported on what was being done overseas. Is it an extension of public diplomacy? Yes, if they are actually analyzing and deliberating the facts and shaping knowledge overseas.

America’s international engagement was clearly intended to further the reach of American media, to go where they could not. There were hearings to privatize the entirety of the international broadcasting operation, but the media declined saying they could not afford to do it, but they would be happy to continue to lease their transmitters and sell programming to the government.

A related post is Congressional Intent on Privatization of International Broadcasting, particularly the discussion from Rep. Karl Stefan (R-NE) from March 11, 1948.

The following is from Rethinking Smith-Mundt and focuses on the Congressional and public debates concerning the perceived government competition with American media. The leading voice from the media against government-owned broadcasting was the Associated Press’s Kent Cooper, then executive director. You may be aware of his opposition to government ownership, but I’ll give you a dollar if you know the basis of his opposition, a hypocrisy that his fellow publishers and Assistant Secretary of State Benton pointed out in debates played out in newspapers and radios.

Links to many of the historical articles will soon be placed in the Smith-Mundt Symposium’s library

In January, 1946, the board of the AP decided to stop selling news to the State Department, with the United Press following soon after.[1] The companies believed that government involvement in news distribution was contrary to the “principle of freedom of access to the news and the free flow of news around the world.”[2] Permitting their news to be broadcast by the Voice of America, in their view, was to risk the stigma of being controlled by the Government.[3] At the time, Secretary of State Byrnes responded and reiterated that the government operations were “not intended to compete with or supplant the privately financed American news agencies.”[4] The AP was not apparently concerned that selling their feed to either the BBC or Tass, the official Soviet news agency, would reflect on their objectivity.[5]

Cooper was committed to expanding the AP globally in an effort to spread “the doctrine of a free press to all peoples hungry for unbiased information.”[6] It is likely that influencing the AP and UP decision was that selling to the VOA put a “crimp” in their efforts to sell their news abroad.[7]

Many in the media questioned the AP’s motives and approach. On the AP point that the “government cannot engage in newscasting without creating the fear of propaganda” that “would reflect on the objectivity of the news services,” one magazine said they “would be more impressed by this statement were we convinced that the Associated Press made a practice of disciplining those of its member newspapers which slant its dispatches by editing and headline writing.” To the point that Tass was an AP customer, the magazine asked the AP if they “are more certain of the objectivity of the Soviet Government than of that of their own?”[8]

Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution was “fed up with the pontifical attitude” of Cooper and the UP’s Hugh Baillie. McGill said the “attitude of the AP might make a silent giant of this country when every other giant and pigmy in the world is broadcasting its own interpretation of American news events and policies.”[9] Mark Ethridge, the editor of The Louisville Courier-Journal and Times, described the AP and UP as “exceedingly smug in their assumption they are the sole possessors of purity.” He criticized the wire services for imagining they could penetrate countries “where they cannot go” at a time “when we are trying to win the peace—now, while we are in an ideological war.”[10]

In April 1946, the AP and UP pressured the American Society of Newspaper Editors to condemn the Voice of America and push for an end to the State Department’s international information activities. The ASNE board appointed a committee to investigate. The member included editors from the The New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the The Baltimore Sun. The committee would conclude that “the present uncertainties in international relations justify an effort by the United States Government to make its activities and its policies clear to the people of the world through the agency set up in the State Department.” The committee also recommended the ASNE continue its oversight in the information field.[11] Cooper held his ground.

The next month, in a speech at the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University, Cooper explained his opposition. He said that only “the abhorrent method of military force alone could” thwart Communism. He believed that any use of information would have no effect and could backfire and solidify opposition to the United States. Meeting Russian propaganda, he said, would be difficult and should not be done “any more than we should adopt communism itself.”[12]

Cooper went on to explain American news agencies were already distributed internationally and saw no reason for the government to intervene and participate in this distribution. He complained that overseas broadcasts were not available for Americans to hear and monitor, questioning whether it really was America’s voice. The lack of central oversight could, in Cooper’s estimation, lead to parts of the government sending information overseas unbeknownst to others that “may lead us all to catastrophe.”[13]

Benton, the State Department’s point person on Smith-Mundt, responded publicly and vigorously. He pointed out Cooper’s concession that “the State Department’s information program is not regarded by the wire services as being competitive.” He reiterated the earlier statement by Byrnes as well as noted language previously added to the bill that the government “ought to encourage the activities of private, competitive agencies in the communications field.” Benton continued, writing that “if and as private agencies develop in these areas the Government should withdraw.”[14]

The safeguards went further. Representative Vorys (R-OH) wanted “to remove the stigma of propaganda” from the information activities.[15] An amendment attached to the Bloom Bill had said government information should be conducted only if needed to supplement international information dissemination by private agencies, that the State Department was not to acquire a monopoly of broadcasting or any other international information medium, and that outstanding private leaders should be invited to review and advise the Department in this work.[16]

Cooper proclaimed that “all countries of any importance actually avail themselves of the news reports of the United States wire services.” In March, Ambassador Harriman told members of Congress that he observed that American news in the Soviet Union could be “shut off” at once if Moscow did not approve of its tone.[17] Benton noted that strategic areas “Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Iran, among others” do not get the news report. The “twilight” regions of the Balkans and others also had limited if any service by private media. Benton continued on the point that the Soviet news agency receives the AP feed: “The Soviet Tass agency get the AP report, but I am sure you agree with me that Russian newspapers cannot, even in the most farfetched sense… [be] said to have the ‘AP service.’”[18]

Representative Everett Dirksen (R-IL) also countered Cooper’s claim with evidence of “falsehoods” in the Russian media. To Dirksen, the Soviet goal was to destroy the “integrity” and the “greatness of the American system.” Representative Harold Cooley (D-NC) concurred, saying the Communists wanted to vilify America while defaming its “institutions in the eyes of the peoples of the world.” Mundt put the need for the bill in the context of preemption and not waiting for private media to fill the gaps over time: “The forces of aggression are moving rapidly and we must step up our action and increase our efforts in the field of information abroad if we are to prevent the eventuality of confronting a world which has been either coerced or corrupted against us.”[19]

There were two efforts to explore privatizing the information activities. The first was put forw ard by the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, John Taber (R-NY). Taber wanted the Voice of America limited to “factual news,” use the three wire services (AP, UP, and the International News Service who was still selling to the Government but would later merged with the UP), and “quotations from some of the more able and more influential broadcasters.” He also wanted FBI-administered loyalty tests on State Department employees involved in the broadcasts. Taber was certain that if only the State Department used the “proper approach” the AP and the UP would resume selling to the Government.[20] This plan did not go far.

The other proposal was from Senator Joseph Ball (R-MI). Hearings were held on his amendment to completely privatize America’s information activities the month after Cooper’s speech. Both CBS and NBC said private business could not afford the international broadcast part of the program.[21] The broadcasters were content to continuing providing transmitters and content to the government.[22]

More importantly, major media were behind Benton and the bill. The The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, the Washington Star, and the Chicago Times, all actively supported the bill. David Sarnoff, president of RCA, and Philip D. Reed, chairman of GE, also wrote favorable editorials supporting Smith-Mundt. Testifying on behalf of the bill in July 1947, Reed said “the simple truth about the United States…widely told throughout the world, will do more to reduce the risk of war, and thus to reduce the need for a multibillion dollar military force, than any other single factor.”[23]

Support for private media would be included in the, European Recovery Act, commonly referred to as the Marshall Plan, in the form of the Information Media Guarantee (IMG), which was passed soon after Smith-Mundt. The IMG subsidized exchange rate deficits and costs associated with international distribution of news, books, and films. The fifteen million dollars earmarked for the program in its first year emphasized the government’s intent to expand private sector outreach, including the media.[24]


[1] The International News Service (INS), owned by the Hearst Corporation, continued to sell its services to the State Department. The AP did provide its feed for free to State, but only for fact checking. The UP acquired the INS in 1958 and became UPI.

[2] "AP Shuts Off News for Use Abroad by State Department Service," New York Times, January 15 1946.

[3] Pirsein, The Voice of America: An History of the International Broadcasting Activities of the United States Government, 1940-1962, 117.

[4] "AP Shuts Off News for Use Abroad by State Department Service."

[5] The AP also opposed the VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from being seated in the Senate Press Gallery. They held this opposition through 1983 when VOA was finally permitted to report directly from Congress. The AP never objected to seating Tass in the Senate Press Gallery. See Michael Nelson, War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War, 1st UK ed. (London ; Washington: Brassey's, 1997), 17-18. In April 1946, Cooper

[6] As of the end of 1945, the AP supplied news to 500 international newspapers and radio stations in 20 countries in the Eastern Hemisphere. See "Ap Supplied 2604 Outlets in 1945," The Washington Post, April 21 1946.

[7] James, "Congress Weighs Fate of 'Voice of America'; Secretary Marshall Backs Mundt Bill Which Provides Also for Keeping Other Benton Activities Objection to News Service."

[8] Robert William Pirsein, The Voice of America: An History of the International Broadcasting Activities of the United States Government, 1940-1962, Dissertations in Broadcasting (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 464 FN19.

[9] "News or Propaganda?," Time, January 28 1946.

[10] Hinton, Harold. "Editors Endorse Us News Service." New York Times, May 15 1946.

[11] Shawn J. Parry-Giles, The Rhetorical Presidency, Propaganda, and the Cold War, 1945-1955, Praeger Series in Presidential Studies, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), 8.

[12] "Cooper Criticizes 'Voice of America'," New York Times, May 27 1947. Less than two weeks before this speech, and unlike his unsuccessful effort with the ASNE, Cooper managed to get journalisms professional fraternity to condemn the government news service. See "U.S. News Service Opposed by Editor; Sigma Delta Chi Croup Say Mundt Bill Would Impair Free Flow of Information," New York Times, May 15 1947.

[13] "Cooper Criticizes 'Voice of America'."

[14] "Benton Accuses Ap Chief of 'Misleading' in His Talk," The Washington Post, June 15 1947.

[15] John D. Morris, "Seek to Halt Fund for Federal News; Republicans Say Department of State Lacks Authority to Use $10,000,000 Would Kill $10,000,000 Fund Harriman Testimony Secret," New York Times, April 11 1946.

[16] Paulu, "The Smith-Mundt Act: A Legislative History."

[17] White, "Soviet 'Situation' Halts House Bill; Gives Views on Russia."

[18] Ibid. See also "Benton Questions Attack by Cooper: Replies in Detail to Criticism of Voice of America Made by Associated Press Chief," New York Times, June 15 1947. In 1946, Congress solicited the views of the AP and the UP on the previous version of the legislation but both declined. See "Public Corporation Proposed to Handle Voice of America," Washington Post, May 18 1947.

[19] Parry-Giles, The Rhetorical Presidency, Propaganda, and the Cold War, 1945-1955, 15-16.

[20] "Public Corporation Proposed to Handle Voice of America," Washington Post, May 18 1947.

[21] "Chains Shy at Adopting U.S. 'Voice'," The Washington Post, June 13 1947.

[22] About the time of their testimony, CBS and NBC produced about 42% of the Voice of America’s output. See Pirsein, The Voice of America: An History of the International Broadcasting Activities of the United States Government, 1940-1962, 128.

[23] Parry-Giles, The Rhetorical Presidency, Propaganda, and the Cold War, 1945-1955, 14.

[24] Ibid., 10. For the cultural diplomacy angle on the IMG, see Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propagan da and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 45. Taken together, the IMG and Smith-Mundt suggest that government-backed information activities would cease once the private sector achieved the reach that, at the time, required government resources.

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