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Reforming Smith-Mundt

Jul 13, 2011


APDS Blogger: Anna Dawson

On Tuesday, July 12, 2011, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy held a public meeting in Washington, DC, to discuss the current state of the Smith-Mundt Act and funding public diplomacy. Much of the discussion centered on a proposed amendment in the Smith-Mundt Act to remove a “firewall” that currently prohibits any public diplomacy effort from the State Department or the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG) from reaching a domestic audience. The consensus among all members of the commission, and the conclusion that anyone can see from the given information, is that there needs to be an amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act to allow domestic audiences’ access to these broadcasts.

Executive Director Matt Armstrong gave a brief history of the Smith-Mundt Act at the beginning of the meeting to provide the audience-- which was open to the public, members and staff of Congress, the State Department, Defense Department, the media, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations— with context in which to place the law. The United States Informational and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, more commonly known at the Smith-Mundt Act, institutionalized the Voice of America and specified how the U.S. government could engage in public diplomacy. It also essentially protected the practice of public diplomacy by the State Department and ensured its place within the government. When it was created, Congress added the “firewall” provision that the newly- created State Department could only broadcast outside of the U.S. due to mistrust of the new institution (which was “chock full of Reds” and “incompetents”). This geographical separation of the population within the U.S. versus the population outside of the U.S. was easily regulated due to short-wave radio broadcasts being the most advanced form of technology at the time.

As one audience member deftly summarized, it is good to learn from the past even as we transcend it. While we can see why the law was made 60 years ago, we also must realize that today, with a myriad of new technologies, the law does not make sense because one cannot easily separate domestic and foreign audiences. Today, every public diplomacy product from the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors can only be made available within the U.S. by an act of Congress. However, as Jeff Trimble of the BBG stressed, due to the nature of the Internet, websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts from various BBG outlets are accessible to people within the United States. Technically, this is going against the Act and is “illegal”. When one looks at the differences in technology, it is easy to see that the Smith-Mundt Act is outdated and cannot adapt to today’s global communications.

The speakers gave numerous examples of areas where the Smith-Mundt Act has created problems that seem illogical. Jeff Trimble demonstrated that diaspora communities within the U.S. are an important missing audience. For example, the VOA cannot broadcast their Somali-language programs to a large Somali émigré community living in Minnesota because of the “firewall” provision. Similarly, after the Haiti earthquake, VOA proposed to have a Sirius radio channel in Haitian Creole, but its inadvertent transmission to a U.S. audience stopped efforts. These examples are missed opportunities of reaching an important potential audience due to this “firewall.”

U.S. Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy Discussing the Smith-Mundt Act

After listening to speakers from various backgrounds draw the same conclusion that the “firewall” provision is moot, I agree that the only viable option is to make amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act to keep up with the changing technologies and global communications. The provision that keeps domestic audiences from accessing U.S. international broadcasting is outdated and no longer relevant to a world where the line between domestic and international audiences is increasingly blurred. By adding this amendment, the Smith-Mundt Act can retain its purpose of protecting U.S. public diplomacy rights, while increasing efficiency of resources and coordination for international broadcasting across multiple organizations.

The speakers in attendance were Dr. Chris Paul of RAND Corporation; Andrew Cedar of the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; and Jeff Trimble of the BBG. The Commission members in attendance were Matt Armstrong, Executive Director; Bill Hybl, Chairman; Lyndon Olson, Vice Chairman; Penne Peacock, Commissioner; Lezlee Westine, Commissioner; and Sim Farar, Commissioner.

Anna Dawson is a Master of Public Diplomacy candidate and an incoming Senior Editor for USC’s Public Diplomacy Magazine. She is currently interning at the Center for International Private Enterprise in Washington, DC.


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My thanks to Anna Dawson for

My thanks to Anna Dawson for writing this article and to USC's CPD for posting it! I was present at this meeting of the Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission last Tuesday on Capitol Hill. I totally agree that the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 should be modified.

There is a pressing need for VOA content within the confines of the continental United States. One of the important audiences for VOA, in my opinion, should be Diaspora communities living within the U.S. They can serve as a credible conduit to their friends, family and former neighbors living in other parts of the world. Our content should be made available to them as easily as it is to those who are still living in their country of origin.

As I was compiling data for my doctoral dissertation, an Arabic-speaking engineer that I interviewed from Michigan told me that the largest area of Arabic speakers outside of the greater Middle East is located in Dearborn, Michigan. He continued by saying, "There is as much of a need for VOA / Arabic in Dearborn, Michigan as there is in Amman, Jordan." Of course, the irony in his statement is: THERE IS NO V-O-A / ARABIC !!! Arabic-speaking residents in Dearborn, Michigan can listen to Al Jazeera but they cannot listen to Radio Sawa. Somali Diaspora living in Minnesota can be recruited by Al Shabab on the Internet; yet, they cannot listen to VOA's Horn of Africa service. There is definitely something wrong with that picture. It almost speaks of self-censorship of VOA to the U.S.

Also, VOA Special English and English lessons embedded in language programming are valuable programs to Diaspora living in the U.S. If one of the stepping stones to LEGAL immigration in the U.S. is learning to speak English, then VOA English language content can be a GREAT asset.

While some people think there will be an additional cost to the government for providing content to the U.S., I can prove that modification of Smith-Mundt to allow VOA content within the U.S. would be virtually no cost to the U.S. Federal government. There are plenty of available channels for VOA content to commercial radio broadcasters on HD Radio on the FM band and small, daytime radio stations on the AM band where, I'm sure, commercial broadcasters would welcome FREE content to open new markets to new listeners, which can then be monetized. Modifying Smith-Mundt would allow IBB’s Office of Affiliate Relations to talk to and coordinate with commercial broadcasters within the United States.

Some people also feel “that Smith-Mundt was the last ‘firewall’ to keep it out of the U.S. domestic market.” That was precisely the reason why Smith-Mundt came into being in the first place. My research indicated three reasons for its coming into existence:

1. The U.S. Congress looked at how Hitler and the Nazis had propagandized the German people prior to and during World War II and they did not want a government entity broadcasting to the American people (even though, today, partially government funded NPR and PBS broadcast to the American people).

2. The two radio broadcasting networks in existence at that time, CBS and NBC, heavily lobbied Congress because they did not want competition on the air from a Federal government entity broadcasting to the American people (even though, today, they must compete with partially government funded NPR and PBS as they broadcast to the American people).

3. Both political parties feared that the VOA would not serve as a voice for the totality of America; rather, it would serve as a mouthpiece for the political party in power in the White House (even though, today, we have the VOA Journalistic Code, as mandated by Congress, to keep us "fair and balanced").

I have also heard of a fourth reason, which was uncovered by Matt Armstrong, the new executive director of the Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission and former adjunct faculty with the University of Southern California and Dr. J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics.

Both Matt and Dr. Waller uncovered data that, at the time of the Smith-Mundt Act's inception, Congress was concerned that the U.S. Department of State was infiltrated with Communist and Socialist sympathizers. Those in Congress did not want the State Department to have a direct conduit to the American people to espouse their Communist and Socialist ideological views. As Matt Armstrong wrote in "The Small Wars Journal:"

"The second driving need for the restriction of who would speak to the American public was one of censorship, as the modern view goes, but not of the whole government or even of the executive branch. The pervasive view in Congress was the State Department was filled with 'Communist sympathizers' (plus some left over socialist New Dealers) that would undermine the President and the United States government by being soft on the Communists" (see “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” at​m/blog/journal/docs-temp/7​7-armstrong.pdf ).

Smith-Mundt also had an historical effect on the technical development of domestic commercial radio broadcasting in the United States. When I attended annual meetings of the NASB (National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters), I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with a commercial shortwave radio station general manager and a bureaucrat from the U.S. Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) International Bureau. Both told me the same exact story.

When the U.S. Congress said that the VOA could not broadcast domestically on shortwave, the FCC said, "Fine. Neither can anyone else." The continental United States is one of the few large of areas of geographic expanse in the world where shortwave radio was never commercialized, monetized or blossomed as a successful broadcasting technology -- as contrasted from Europe, Russia, China, India, Africa or South America. While the FCC was also heavily lobbied by the clear-channel 50,000-watt AM stations to not allow a domestic shortwave broadcasting service, the Smith-Mundt ruling with VOA also figured into the FCC’s calculus and decision making process. Consequently, long-range commercial shortwave radio broadcasting within the United States failed. Now, when a commercial shortwave broadcaster files a CP (Construction Permit) for a station or frequency, they must also identify their target audience outside of the continental United States.

It's time for big changes in the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948!


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