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The American government every week produces thousands of hours of radio and TV broadcasts but, until this month, a so-called anti-propaganda law forbid the US from directing any of this content at domestic audiences.
Now, though, an update to the Cold War era law known as the Smith-Mundt Act means that content from outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe — which create shows in 61 languages for more than 100 countries — can flow to American ears. The new law, which lets the US Archives and the State Department distribute the programming, also says that no funds shall be used to “influence public opinion in the US.”
The new rules raise an interesting debate about government media in the internet era. Is the content, as Cold War supporters of the original law claimed, propaganda that should not be directed at Americans? Or is it a legitimate and useful news source? A government source told Foreign Policy that the content is not propaganda but objective news that can counter-balance toxic, jihadist broadcasts aimed at diasporas like Minnesota’s Somali community.
“Those people can get al-Shabab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn’t get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia … It was silly.”
Meanwhile, government-funded broadcasting is long-established in other English-speaking countries like Canada and Great Britain, where the BBC is not only a feature of public life but an important source of diplomatic power too.
In any case, the plurality of voices in the internet age means it’s harder for any single outlet to have the impact of World War II era propagandists like Tokyo Rose, whose habit of playing U.S. hits made her broadcasts popular with U.S. servicemen.
(Image by Marina99 via Shutterstock)