Monday, July 15, 2013

Don’t look now, but the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 is revised! You’d better don those tinfoil hats folks!

Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks were mainstays of the Cold War era, and VOA was a regular stop in shortwave listening back when I was a kid, during the low tech 1970s.  Much of the programming I found to be superior to domestic media fare. In general the news was more in depth, and it provided a good window into foreign affairs / world news. Additionally, the material aimed at foreigners interested in American governance and culture was not simply ‘propaganda’ but good even handed documentary. Ditto on the flavor of domestic news.  There was also honest portrayal of American faults.  Overall, good stuff, particularly as compared to the flat one-dimensional shortwave services emanating from Moscow and Cuba. I would listen to these for laughs. According to Radio Havana, for instance, the US was a cesspool, while Cuba was Utopian.

So, up until late May there was something called the “Smith–Mundt” act that prohibited American citizens from receiving any such government produced programming via the AM FM and any other (read cable or satellite) domestic broadcast bands.  While the broadcasters could, and do, offer BBC news, the always reliable Russia Today, Indian news services, Chinese service, all state funded and produced, they were not allowed to offer VOA, RFE, RL, by this law.   This also meant that any print media created for foreign distribution (by say the state department) could not be distributed to citizens, even if they asked for it.
This meant that much of this programming and literature was, while funded by taxpayers, not something tax payers could review.  Why?  What was the rationale behind this act? A half-baked concern, post- WWII, that it would smack too much of Joseph Goebbels or Stalinist Russia to do otherwise.  That’s the extent of the argument, such as it is, for the continuance of this law. Don’t believe me? Consider this fevered formulation of the argument for outrage at this change:

Nothing speaks more urgently to the creeping fascism of American politics than the assertion by our representatives, who apparently have never read a book on Germany in the 1930s-1940s or on the Soviet Union in the Stalin period, that forbidding DoD and the State Department from subjecting us to government propaganda “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.” And mind you, they want to use our own money to wash our brains!

Notice the language: Now that this law has been changed DOD and State can ‘subject us to government propaganda.’  Boy, that is sinister.

Just to be clear here, the government cannot force anything upon any citizen now that the law has been revised. It can produce programs and literature. Broadcast outfits can now CHOOSE to offer that programming just as they have been able to CHOOSE to offer the BBC and the always reliable RTV.  No one is being given free reign to tie you down and ‘subject’ you to anything.

Here’s the relevant text as concerns the folks in charge of VOA etc.:
..[T]he Secretary and the Broadcasting Board of Governors may, upon request and reimbursement of the reasonable costs incurred in fulfilling such a request, make available, in the United States, motion pictures, films, video, audio, and other materials prepared for dissemination abroad or disseminated abroad

The man cannot even approach broadcasters with a suggestion they air. He can only act UPON REQUEST.  Not only that, as the section also makes clear, the requester has to cover any costs incurred by the request.

  So much for the Big Brother canard from the fever swamps..

Honestly, I don’t think the law as it stood, even back in the low-tech mid to late 20th Century really accomplished what it set out to do (assuming of course that its intent was to shelter US citizens from being exposed to materials intended for foreigners). Hell, if you had a shortwave radio you could hear VOA loud and clear at all hours. If you were in the service abroad, you could just as easily hear it, provided you had LW, MW or SW receivers.  

If, on the other hand, the purpose of the law was to avoid even the appearance of Big Brother sponsored, State-Monopolized Media Brain Washing, I suppose it met that end, but for whom was that appearance being maintained? Foreign audiences? Domestic?

Even assuming that the material was made available to domestic broadcasters back during those days, would it follow that U.S. media would bear even a remote resemblance to state- monopolized media elsewhere?  Would the Korean and Vietnam wars have been covered more positively? Would all the domestic networks have been gung-ho militarists?  Would Watergate have failed to be covered? Would the Iraq War have been covered more positively? Would Dubya be portrayed as a demi-god? How about Afghanistan? Would it be painted as a rip-roaring success? Would we have had 1984ish media stirring up hatred of others while whitewashing our own blemishes?  Would our domestic media have turned out to look and sound like Radio Havana? 

Hardly.  The networks would still have had their own reporters producers and editors making their own choices as to what to cover. They would simply have had one more possible source of information that they could critically examine and interpret. Don’t you worry. Cronkite would still have declared Tet a disaster for the U.S.

Not to mention that there would still be the Noam Chomskys and Alex Joneses of the nation and world to inoculate us from the nefarious gubmint/media complex.

Take the tin foil hats off folks, and I hear aspirin soothes fever.

Some sane stories about this revision

From ASU
From Heritage

Some bat-guano from the fever swamps:

From the always-reliable state funded RT:
From the late Michael Hastings/Buzzfeed:
And from Brave Sir Edward’s enabler: