By Patricia H. Kushlis
The U.S. government just embarked upon its newest international media adventure. No, I don’t mean via Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, You-Tube, webpages or other bits of the social media. That’s old news. The State Department, Embassies abroad and our international radios have used the social media - more and less - effectively for the past several years. What I’m referring to is making it legal for American citizens living in the US to access US government broadcasts and web-based electronic materials directed at foreigners for the first time.
The recently amended Smith-Mundt Act was enacted in the 1950s supposedly to protect pristine American eyes and ears from US government propaganda (a word made pejorative by Hitler and Stalin) but in reality the ear-plugs and blinders came into force more to protect the interests of the Associated Press which feared government competition to its then fledgling foreign news business.
By the 1990s, Internet and satellite transmissions had obviated the Smith-Mundt ban. Long before that, short-wave radio hams throughout the US regularly accessed Voice of America broadcasts and even on dark winter nights when I was a teenager, I could hear the VOA signal and its Yankee Doodle Dandy fife and drum corps theme song in California on my small transistor radio when the antenna pointed towards the northeast. The station came in just as loud and clear then – if not clearer - than VOA did in my Moscow apartment in 1980.
How harmful is access to national public radio stations designed to sell US foreign policies abroad to American citizens? It’s not as if the US government monopolizes the airwaves in this country. Or that the vast majority of Americans are going to switch the dial from the infotainment programs or worse that they’ve become addicted to US government newscasts or editorials aimed at explaining the US to foreigners. Fat chance.
Or that our huge commercial media conglomerates will suddenly become divorced from their all too cozy relationships with the government and/or opposition media handlers and report unbiased news for a change as opposed to airing verbatim contents of the latest media blurbs from their favorite sources that regularly scroll across reporters’ computer screens or clog the Inbox.
Smith-Mundt the least of the problems
Nevertheless, I’ve never been convinced that a repeal or revision of this outdated law was worth the effort. I’m not opposed to the revision but there are far more serious questions about the dysfunctional way these radio stations are currently governed and administered, the contents of their broadcasts, and the languages in which they broadcast.
Why, for instance, does the US need an unwieldy conglomeration of publicly funded separately operated surrogate radio stations like Radio Marti or Radio Free anything - except to appease specific Congressional constituencies and play to their biases? This especially when the US government can’t even muster the political will to appoint a handful of people – let alone qualified ones – to the overarching, bipartisan Board of International Broadcasting that supposedly sets the rules for and tone.
Lied to by Omission
In the New York Time’s July 21, 2013 Sunday Review, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar bemoans the lack of Turkish media coverage of the huge Gezi Park demonstrations at Istanbul’s Taksim Square in June which instead, he observed, broadcast stories of “penguins waddling across the ice of Antartica.” Now that’s real reporting for you.
I remember such similar non-coverage by Russian state television of the shootout at the Russian parliament in 1993 as well as the paucity of US media coverage of the large American anti-war demonstrations in Washington, New York and elsewhere prior to the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Or what about US cable television’s refusal to carry Al Jazeera – until next month, that is, and only after the Qatari based company bought Al Gore’s Current TV channel so our experts who avidly follow the fluid Middle East situation can also watch the company’s broadcasts on cable, not just via the Internet? Providing, of course, Comcast can’t find some other excuse to keep the ban in place and Al Jazeera programs away from American hearts and minds.
Turkish media are not necessarily all that different.
Baydar argues that the current situation in Turkey came about because of the all too close cooperation between the Turkish corporate conglomerates that include broadcast media among their many holdings and the Erdogan government in the traditional “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship.
Baydar suggests that the problem affects much of Southeast Europe as well. The same criticism, in my view, is also applicable to the too close US government-corporate media relationship right here in the USA. Baydar argues that an autonomous and independent public broadcasting system would resolve the situation in Turkey by guaranteeing “the public’s right to know without interference from corporate interests.”
Well would it – when push comes to shove?
Even the venerable BBC which Baydar holds up as a model went blank during the Falklands War and US media – at the request of the US government - did not publish reports of American hostages secreted away in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. Until that is, they had safely left Iran masquerading as members of a film crew. Both governmentally inspired decisions which did have national security merit.
Then there was the way the Pentagon swayed American reporters by imbedding them with the troops to ensure they only saw the Donald Rumsfeld-Dick Cheney view of the Iraq invasion which, in the end, failed to square with reality. Yet I don’t recall that PBS was more immune to the administration’s blinders and manipulation of the free press than reporters working for the private sector.
Or this spring's most recent example: when PBS cancelled a special on the billionaire righter-than- Attila Brothers Koch whose financial support to the station was suddenly more important than telling the American public the truth about the pair’s multiple questionable activities.
It seems to me then that there is no perfect answer to this age old probem – it all depends upon who controls the medium and how the person or organization chooses to use it. This takes us back to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. News reporting is in my view – even in the best of times – rarely truly objective. Reporters and editors have their bosses and biases. Stories are reported from the vantage point of the individual reporter who hopefully was there on the scene. They are run, or not, based on a host of not necessarily objective criteria. Sometimes non-stories aka infotainment are broadcast while critical news is left out for noble – and sometimes not so noble - reasons.
Perhaps in the end, in these Internet days the best one can hope for is access to as wide an array of sources and reports as possible. Then take it from there.