McAdams On: The Next Voice of America
6/25/2010 2:37:26 PM
Americans may finally get to hear the Voice of
America over the air for the first time since the network started 68 years ago.
Right now, the notion is an informal proposal in a 95-page report issued
this month by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
By federal law, Voice of America and other such U.S.-funded media operations--e.g.,
TV and Radio Marti, Radio Sawa, Alhurra, Radio Free Europe, etc.--cannot be broadcast
directly to citizens within the United States. Some feeds are available online or via
shortwave radio, but not over the air as they are in much of the rest of the
These operations, now managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, were set
up to cast the United States in a favorable light around the world. They are
associated with “propaganda,” though officials within those agencies sometimes
rankle at the term. VOA was prohibited from broadcasting in the United States
in 1948 because lawmakers then considered it propaganda. The law still stands.
The Smith-Mundt act prevents the U.S. government from distributing propaganda
on American soil.
Thus, the majority of Americans have no exposure to media operations
costing them around $750 million a year. Meanwhile, cable platforms stateside
carry Al Jazeera, and DirecTV carries MHz Networks, home of several
Here’s what the Senate committee report said:
“Congress should revisit the Smith-Mundt legislation... which bans U.S. government broadcasting
within the U.S. for fear the government would unduly influence its own
citizens. Today, however, Russia and China and other entities currently
broadcast in English in the United States. Additionally, recent Arabic-speaking
immigrants to the United States are able to watch Al Jazeera but prevented by
Smith-Mundt from viewing Al Hurra.
“These realities, coupled with the rise of the Internet, which enables computer
users in the U.S. to receive video and audio streams of BBG broadcasts and
readily access BBG Web sites, demonstrate that aspects of
the legislation are both anachronistic and
Scrapping Smith-Mundt is intriguing on two particular points. First would be the
opportunity for U.S. viewers to compare coverage from the major commercial news
operations with that of their own government. The government considers its
networks vehicles of public diplomacy. In the wake of 9/11, Americans wondered
“why do they hate us,” the Senate committee report points out. Public diplomacy
is designed to “move the needle as quickly as possible from ‘hate the United
States’ to, if not exactly ‘love,’ at least, ‘like.’”
One universal trait of the human being is a fairly sensitive BS meter. As
Smith-Mundt demonstrates, media propaganda is an old institution. Perhaps there’s
a degree of inurement to it. It’s possible if not likely that more and more
people believe less and less of what they hear. That certainly seems to be the
case here in the United States, where news often strives to confirm beliefs
rather than challenge them. It would be ironic if coverage of government-funded
news operations was indiscernible from that of commercial networks.
The second point of intrigue here is whether the private sector would tolerate
the distribution of U.S.-funded networks on traditional media platforms. Would
VOA have to start hawking coffee mugs and greatest hits DVDs? Or would the
operation end up managed by the private sector, which would make for some
interesting viewing around the world. Then our global neighbors could share in
the rumors circulating in Michael Jackson’s inner circle and how many times
Lindsey Lohan violates her probation.
That way, if we can’t make ‘em like us, perhaps we can just spongify their
What comes of the Senate Foreign Relations report will take a few years since
it requires agreement among the 550 most disagreeable folks around. The report
itself does reflect a general consensus for changing U.S.-funded broadcast
operations. It’s just a question of how, and since it doesn’t involve 3DTV or
celebrities, the answer may fly under most people’s radar. And that really is