Repeal of Smith-Mundt domestic dissemination ban is good, unless it goes over to the Dark Side.

Posted: 03 Jan 2013   Print   Send a link
Broadcasting Board of Governors press release, 3 Jan 2012: "The Broadcasting Board of Governors today hailed a new law that updates one of the founding statutes of public diplomacy in the United States, a change that the Board has long supported and had incorporated into its strategic plan.

"The defense authorization bill that the President signed last night includes a provision that reduces restrictions on the dissemination of materials within the United States that were originally intended for audiences overseas. This means that news and information programs produced by BBG journalists for people in more than 100 countries can also be made available for broadcast within the United States; many already are available worldwide via the Internet. The provision was originally known as the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act when it was first introduced in Congress in 2010 and re-introduced last year.

"Presiding Governor Michael Lynton said the new law will allow the BBG to accept requests to provide its programs to organizations which, until now, it could not share them with, including U.S.-based broadcasters, publications, universities, non-governmental organizations, and others that have requested these materials over the years. ...

"The legislation updates the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, a section of which prohibited the State Department and U.S. international broadcasting from disseminating within this country any program materials that have been produced using funds appropriated for public diplomacy. A subsequent amendment to the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 prohibited using such funds to influence public opinion in the United States. These two provisions together are popularly known as Smith-Mundt, named after the primary Senate and House authors of the 1948 bill, who could not have anticipated the advent of the World Wide Web or dramatic shifts in the population of the United States, including large communities of people from other countries seeking information via a variety of media in their native languages.

"'The new law is a major breakthrough for U.S. international media,' said Susan McCue, a member of the BBG Board’s Communications and Outreach Committee. 'All Americans will now have access to the vital and informative reporting of our accomplished journalists around the world who are working under difficult circumstances in closed societies and developing countries. The news and programs they produce every day will benefit many US audiences, including diaspora communities.'

"The BBG has been expanding its programming options overseas as more media platforms become popular among its key target audiences – emphasizing broadcasting via radio and TV where they have the greatest impact, while ramping up digital outreach in places where audiences increasingly indicate a preference for receiving news through websites, blogs, mobile devices or other means. The new law allows this process to continue without regard to whether these programs might also be watched or heard by people within the

United States, and expands the options for these programs’ distribution.

"The law makes no change to the BBG’s enabling statute, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994, which does not authorize the agency to create new programs solely for U.S. audiences."

The widespread mistaken assumption is that the internet has obsoleted the domestic dissemination law. In fact, the internet has finally rendered it practicable. Through geoblocking, the content of USIB entities' websites could simply be made unavailable to US internet users. This, however, was never done. The most obvious way to observe the domestic dissemination ban was ignored. The new law, therefore, won't change much except to forestall any member of Congress or government lawyer from making mischief by calling for the old law to be enforced.

Claims that there have been impediments on the distribution of USIB content via the internet because such content could also be accessed via the internet in the United States are specious, for reasons cited in the previous paragraph.

The BBG should have always been neutral about the "Smith-Mundt Modernization Act." Instead, it is "hailing" the new law, which signals that the BBG is adding the United States as its newest target country (as long as the content is intended for at least one other country). This should make many people very nervous.

The repeal is good, in that it allows the content of USIB to be used by US ethnic media. Immigrant communities can now get USIB news about their home countries in their native languages. In this way a valuable public service is provided at no extra cost to the US taxpayers.

Also, the repeal allows American access to the content of USIB without having to resort to the Freedom of Information Act. Although, as noted above, internet access to such content has not been impeded in the United States.

The repeal, however, could have its dark side. Language in the legislation notwithstanding, future administrations might be emboldened to borrow the facilities and talent of USIB for domestic information campaigns.

Furthermore, it is the goal of every bureaucracy to increase its budget every year, regardless of the broader public interest. USIB could well be tempted to disseminate more and more of its content within the United States as a way of nurturing domestic constituencies. The more resources that are devoted to such a purpose, the fewer that will be available for the real audience, beyond our borders.

Finally, US private media, if they ever notice this provision in a Defense authorization bill, should be concerned. More and more newspapers are going behind paywalls in a bid to remain solvent. Local news outlets must decide whether they can continue to afford to subscribe to news agencies.

If US international broadcasting were ever to be consolidated and unboondoggled, it could be a competitive news organization, not just internationally, but domestically. Why should an American pay for access to a newspaper website when the USIB website is free? Why should a small town newspaper in the Midwest pay for AP when it can reprint USIB stories?

The US private news media and the BBG need to have a parley about the division of their responsibilities, domestically and internationally. The International Broadcasting Act wisely prohibits USIB from competing with private US international broadcasting efforts. It is fiscally prudent for US international broadcasting to be accomplished as much as possible by the private sector, at no cost to the taxpayers.

Fortunately, private US international media are expanding. Global English-language television news? CNN International. Spanish-language television news? CNN en Español. Global English news website? New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and many others. Website in Arabic? CNN Arabic. Website in Chinese? New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Website in Portuguese? New York Times.

US government-funded international broadcasting should not duplicate and compete with US domestic media. On the contrary, they should cooperate as much as possible. This will be possible only if the latter is convinced that the former is truly and unambiguously in the news business.