Smith-Mundt Alert: USC magazine cites VOA

imageFound on page 7 of the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of USC College Magazine is a violation of federal law, specifically the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, as amended.  This magazine contains a quote from the Voice of America, a US Government broadcaster that is not permitted to be disseminated within the territory of the US (see image at right).  Concern over USIA and US Government broadcasters like VOA led the DC Circuit court in 1998 to exempt USIA from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Think of the damage Wikileaks could have caused if it was around in the 1990s to “expose” Americans to VOA!

Will the propagandists of the US Government stop at nothing to influence American minds?  Surely my alma mater should not have used this illegal agitprop and instead used information sources that are, in the eyes of Congress and standing legislation, presumably more trusted, entirely legal and without restriction available within the US, such as Russia Today (found on most cable systems across the US), or various Chinese government TV and radio broadcasters, or the Iranian Government’s PressTV?

Or, should we act like rational adults and take a step back and realize that the Smith-Mundt Act, as amended in the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s, an era far removed from today, requires updating?  The Act should permit commercial and private media, academia, and Congress to, at its discretion, disseminate domestically content produced and distributed with American tax dollars and in the name of American taxpayers. 

Or, is it too hard and inconvenient to recall a core purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act was to provide news and information to audiences that otherwise could not access it and that as private media stepped up, the Government would step down.  Instead, it is easier to ignore that US commercial media has retreated from covering overseas (or domestic) events in depth, or even at all.  CNN or Fox or MSNBC is covering Ethiopian elections like the VOA as well as providing persistent reporting of Somalia, as a major Somali community in the US requested, right?  Yes, let us rely on the Chinese government broadcasters to inform Americans instead of permitting American commercial media to broadcast the same news and information we distribute overseas within our own borders.

Following an event at the Heritage Foundation on Russian public diplomacy’s anti-Americanism, a Russian diplomat conveyed to a colleague his amazement that “they didn't say anything about how Americans aren't allowed to listen to VOA.” 

At what point we must stop pretending the US is neutral territory; we must stop pretending foreign government broadcasters have no agenda in the US; we must stop pretending that audiences within our borders, Americans and non-Americans alike, foreign and domestic media, have the information they need to understand the world around them; and we must stop pretending that US public diplomacy is dangerous to Americans.  Failing to do so results in a severe lack of domestic awareness of the context, people, and real issues and environment and how we do and how we should interface and engage with global audiences.  It limits oversight accountability of our overseas activities to Congress and the American taxpayer, prevents the development of a constituency to support public diplomacy and strategic communication, and even mutually supporting and comprehensive efforts from across the US Government and the private sector, including businesses, individuals, and non-governmental organizations. 

At some point, surely, we will realize information and people travel around the world with such speed and impact that borders are increasingly irrelevant.  The US is not Las Vegas: what happens here does not stay here.