By Other Means

The Case for American Propaganda

Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

My fellow Americans, you’re a pretty weird bunch of people.

I say this with love. But really, what’s up with your attitude toward government?

On both the left and the right, Americans oscillate between a peculiar, irrational deference toward the government and an equally peculiar, irrational suspicion of it. On the left, a touching faith in the federal government’s ability to solve domestic social problems (poverty, ill health, etc.) by spending money is generally coupled with an absolute conviction that when it comes to foreign policy and national security, everything emanating from the federal government is a tissue of lies, probably for the purpose of covering up a sinister imperialist conspiracy and/or destroying domestic civil liberties. Meanwhile, on the right, a touching faith in the absolute rightness and virtue of the military and the absolute need to pour additional tax dollars into national security is usually coupled with an equally deep conviction that when it comes to federal spending on domestic programs, the government is a) lying, b) incompetent, and c) determined to subvert our freedoms.

Of course, right and left occasionally find common ground in their shared conviction that the federal government is trying to control and brainwash us all.

Trust me, it’s not. It’s just not organized enough. And it’s just not interested enough. It’s got other things to do.

Nevertheless, this week saw yet another manifestation of our national paranoia about The Government. Late in 2012, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, and in January 2013, President Obama signed it into law. The act repealed a Cold War-era prohibition on disseminating government information produced for foreign audiences inside the United States. As of July 1, when the repeal took effect, radio and TV programs designed for non-U.S. audiences, such as those produced by Voice of America, can now be re-broadcast in the United States.

The sky is falling! Left and right are temporarily united over the horror of "government propaganda" hitting the U.S. airwaves.

"Obama Launches Massive Domestic Propaganda Push With Government-Run News," shrills Conservative News Central. "Coming soon to your living room: Government made propaganda," laments a post on the Lonely Conservative blog. (Interestingly, both left- and right-wing blogs and "news" outlets seized on a short July 15 piece right here in Foreign Policy by John Hudson, with selective quoting on all sides and sometimes no attribution whatsoever. Hot Air and Free Republic contented themselves with reprinting Hudson’s article in full, though it takes some effort to figure out the source.)

Meanwhile, a blog post on snickers, "Now Legalized, US Propaganda Swears It’s ‘Fair and Accurate.’" Over at Firedog Lake, a post asserts that with the "propaganda ban repealed, government-made news floods the United States, " while on the progressive website Common Dreams, a post sneers, "Because the government doesn’t already wield enough power over what we see and hear," the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will now allow government-produced information programs to "lie about how well our wars are going."

On the ideologically uncategorizable wacky conspiracy front, Alex Jones’s InfoWars warns that "the CIA will now propagandize Americans" and quotes the late Michael Hastings decrying the "evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns." (InfoWars also appears to believe that Hastings, best known for the Rolling Stone article that brought down General Stanley McChrystal, was assassinated — by, uh, the military? The CIA? President Obama? Well, someone.)

Okay, I guess I get it. With so much idiotic privately produced propaganda already widely available here in the U.S. of A., who needs government propaganda? Our private sector already does a fine job of disseminating inflammatory misinformation, thank you very much. I mean: We already have Fox News, Matt Drudge, and TruthOut. We can already find plenty of media outlets that purvey shamelessly one-sided, irresponsible garbage. Why muddy the waters by adding government-funded news?

It reminds me of our collective outrage over NSA data collection: We’re fine with having unaccountable for-profit corporate entities collect all our data, but God forbid that our democratically elected government should collect the same data we offer Facebook with reckless abandon!

The irony, of course, is that, just as the government is likely to use our Internet data more responsibly than the private sector, the "government propaganda" that will supposedly flood the country as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is produced to a markedly higher journalistic standard than most of what passes for news here in the United States.

Let’s dispel some myths about the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

First, it has zero effect on the CIA or on the Pentagon; Smith-Mundt only covers information programs produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The CIA and the Pentagon remain subject to entirely different laws and restrictions on certain kinds of domestic activities. If the CIA starts propagandizing you, it won’t be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. If DOD funds something dumb, it won’t be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. (And, contrary to popular belief on the left and in the State Department, DOD information operations are not generally as dumb as they’re often claimed to be. But that’s another story).

Second, the ban on domestic dissemination of BBG TV and radio shows was simply unworkable in the age of the Internet. The Internet is global. There is literally no way to prevent a show produced for foreign audiences from being accessed by Americans. In this sense, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act just acknowledges reality: Anyone, anywhere in the world, can access BBG programs. The only thing that’s really changed as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is that Americans no longer have to work harder than foreigners to access the U.S.-funded radio and TV programs readily available overseas.

Third, the TV and radio programs produced by the BBG (a descendent of the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which closed shop in 1999) are actually pretty good — and they’re editorially independent of State Department control. The BBG is an independent federal agency with a bipartisan board. Its mandate is to produce programming that is "reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive," as well as "consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States." And when they say "broad," they mean broad, to include "a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions" and "responsible discussion and opinion" on U.S. policy.

In fact, BBG programming sometimes annoys those in other parts of the federal government because it doesn’t toe the line or simply parrot administration talking points: In 2001, for instance, Voice of America broadcast parts of an interview with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, leading to intense criticism from others in the State Department. For its willingness to present a wide range of views, VOA won the University of Oregon’s Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

BBG programs have won many journalistic awards, including recognition from the Association for International Broadcasting for coverage of events in Egypt, reports on violence against women in Kyrgyzstan, and a series on the lives of slaves in modern Asia. Most recently, a Voice of America program satirizing Iranian politics won a CINE Golden Eagle award. The BBG produces serious, thought-provoking news and commentary programs in dozens of languages, covering current affairs in dozens of countries. In an era in which U.S. media outlets have radically cut back on overseas bureaus and foreign coverage, do we really need to "protect" American audiences from these shows?

And why would we want to? Prior to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, Somalis in Somalia could watch and listen to BBG-produced shows critically discussing Somalia’s Al Shabab terrorist group, but when Somali-American radio stations wanted permission to re-broadcast the same shows in Minneapolis, the official answer had to be: "Sorry, no, you can’t do that. If you want to access this programming, you need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, or get a Somali friend to record it for you — but you still can’t rebroadcast it." In other words, Somali-Americans could access al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine with ease (or, as John Hudson’s piece notes, Al Shabab news or Russia Today), but they had to jump through multiple hoops to listen to Voice of America.


Here’s the thing. The U.S. government isn’t perfect — far from it. It’s big. It’s clumsy. The left hand sometimes doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Sometimes, the government screws up. Sometimes, it even hires or contracts with people who turn out to be idiots or crooks. But it’s not a vast, sinister conspiracy. It’s just not.

On the whole, it’s full of decent people, both civilian and military, trying hard to serve the country, abide by the law, and exercise responsible stewardship over the taxpayer funds entrusted to the government.

The BBG is very much in that tradition. By and large, the BBG produces serious, responsible journalism, and if a little more of that journalism makes it into the United States, we’ll all get a little smarter.

Here are some recent examples of BBG programming:

  • An expose on police corruption in Azerbaijan.
  • Coverage of the assassination of an environmental activist in Cambodia.
  • A series on human rights defenders in Belarus.
  • Coverage of the "Pussy Riot" trial in Russia.
  • Reporting on Chinese government restrictions against Muslim worship in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
  • Programs on the impact of the Syrian civil war on women and refugees.
  • Coverage of displaced people in Darfur and refugees in Chad.
  • A show called Street Pulse, covering Egyptian social and cultural issues.
  • A show that lets Pakistani viewers pose questions directly to U.S. experts and policymakers — and get on-air responses.

If that’s propaganda, I’ll take it.

And hey, if you don’t like the BBG? You can always go back to your little corner of cable news or the Internet — whether it’s on the far right or the far left — and cuddle up with your like-minded friends.

I promise, the truth will never, ever find you there.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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