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McAdams On: The Next Voice of America

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 world.

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 international newscasts.

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 ofthe legislation are both anachronistic and potentially harmful.”

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 brains.

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 too bad.