VOA on The Daily Show (Updated)

Briefly, opening with “I got a hold of your show on the web and I was so impressed with the heart of it,” Jon Stewart began his interview with Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, two U.S. Government employees – and U.S. public diplomats – behind “Parazit”, a Voice of America program aimed at Iran. The interview, embedded below, followed a brief clip from the show.

Under current law, amended from its original form, if The Daily Show had requested permission from the U.S. Government to broadcast the clip it would have been denied. More on that below.

Two comments. First, kudos to VOA’s Persian News Network’s “Parazit” for the recognition. Jon Stewart said to Hosseini and Arbabi, “you’re like our show but with real guts” and “I’m proud to be considered in the fraternity of humorists that you guys are in.”

Second, Jon Stewart once again went to where little media has gone before: an examination of U.S. Government broadcasting – in this case, with high compliments – for the purpose of increasing American awareness in the same. This right of review, to become aware of what we’re doing abroad and why, to allow media within the borders of the United States access and permission to comment and rebroadcast or reuse material as they – in this case The Daily Show – see fit was the intent of Congress over six decades ago when the law was originally debated and passed. Today, however, it was against the law for VOA to make the material available to The Daily Show under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, as amended. At one time, the material the Act covers was deemed as exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act. 

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As I’m writing this immediately after the show, I don’t have the chance to ask VOA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors whether their lawyers permitted this appearance or if this was a guerrilla action on the part of Hosseini and Arbabi. Based on the letter of the law, VOA lawyers would have denied permission to use the clip. This was done in the case of a Minneapolis-St.Paul radio station that wanted to rebroadcast VOA Somali. It was also the case when NATO and several U.S. universities asked permission to show a 2008 VOA movie on the poppy harvest in Afghanistan. Because of this, I’m guessing the VOA lawyers were ignored. By the way, just as you can access “Parazit” online like Jon Stewart did, you can watch the movie on YouTube while Congress decides whether it’s too dangerous for the people within America’s borders and permit schools and citizens access. By the way, WFED, AM 1500 in DC, periodically programs VOA on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11a-2p. The online newspaper NewJerseyNewsroom.com regularly uses VOA material, as do The Raleigh Chronicle, The Greensboro Telegram and Wicked Local Plymouth (MA). KCHN AM 1050 rebroadcasts VOA Russian programming in Brookshire, Texas. (See this and this and Powers and links at the bottom of this for more.)

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced legislation in the last session of Congress, right before Congress become locked on 1-2 issues and the election cycle, that would modernize the Smith-Mundt Act, primarily by un-adulterating it. In other words, the primary purpose of the bill is to make the activities the Broadcasting Board of Governors and an element of – not the whole – the State Department that engage foreign publics, as in people outside the borders of the U.S., available to the media, academia, Congress, and the public without restriction.

It’s about time to reintroduce this legislation, this time to move beyond socializing it and to pass it. This is a particularly interesting time when we consider the increased activities of foreign governments in the U.S. who may freely engage people on U.S. soil, often without an effective response, especially as U.S. media shutter their foreign bureaus. While Xinhua may put up giant signs and run a 30-second “promotional video” 15 times an hour from 6a – 2a every day until February 14, or Radio China International can broadcast from a radio station in Texas it owns, or Russia Today can be seen on nearly every U.S. cable network, what The Daily Show did is illegal.

Get one thing straight: the Smith-Mundt Act is not an anti-propaganda law. It’s restriction on domestic access (don’t say American access because this is based on geography, not nationality or language or anything else) is aimed at limiting access only to that material produced by the BBG (including VOA) and only part of the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Public Affairs is not covered by this. The result is the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs may freely communicate with global audiences, but the head of the International Information Programs (IIP), the online and print component of the public diplomacy side of the office, cannot.

Again, good on The Daily Show and congratulations to Hosseini and Arbabi for the recognition of “Parazit.”

See also:

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