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Nevertheless, I’ve never been convinced that a repeal or revision of this outdated law was worth the effort.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.