Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why are Americans (technically) being denied information access?

We are the citizens of the Internet. We are not constrained by antiquated concepts. We would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Or something like that.

This is a popular perception, especially when we hear about censorship in China or Australia or wherever - cases in which a government intentionally restricts the right of its citizens to obtain information from certain sources.

Yet in all of the censorship activities that are commonly discussed, there is one that is often ignored. There is a national government that legally prohibits the reception of particular information services to its citizens. Yet despite this legal prohibition, many citizens of this country consistently flout this prohibition.

The country? The United States of America.

The information services? A group of services from the United States government, managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The most well-known of these is the Voice of America.

Yes, U.S. law prohibits the Voice of America from being broadcast to American citizens. The law in question is the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, but the reasons for the ban are not what you think.

...it is worthwhile to look back on the purpose of Smith-Mundt and the debates surrounding the dissemination prohibition that has taken on mythical proportions. The modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt has given rise to an imaginary information environment bifurcated by a uniquely American “iron fence” separating the American media environment from the rest of the world. In 1948, the prohibition was a minor hurdle as the requirements for information and cultural and educational exchanges were debated.

However, modern analysis of Smith-Mundt tends to be informed by modern perceptions in disregard of the historical record. The prohibition was not intended to be prophylactic for sensitive American eyes and ears, but to be a non-compete agreement to protect private media.

This protection of private enterprise persists today. The Broadcasting Standards of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (de facto successor to the more famous U.S. Information Agency, now defunct) continues to include the provision "Not duplicate the activities of private United States broadcasters." I for one am thankful that my taxpayer dollars do not subject foreign audiences to an equivalent of Nancy Grace.

The author of the passage above, Matt Armstrong, also notes:

It was also to protect the Government from itself in the form of censoring the State Department, whose loyalties were suspect to many Congressmen.

Suspect? Yes:

The key issue was not whether US Government information activities should be known to the American public, but whether the State Department could be trusted to create and disseminate these products. When the Bloom Bill (HR 4982) went to the House of Representatives Rules Committee in February 1946, committee Chairman Eugene Cox (D-GA) informed Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William J. Benton that ten of the twelve committee members were against anything the State Department favored because of its "Communist infiltration and pro-Russian policy."...

The ranking minority member of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Rep. John Taber (D-NY), called for a "house-cleaning" of "some folks" in the State Department to "keep only those people whose first loyalty is to the United States."

Yet the so-called "Commies" at the State Department were able to beam messages out to the USSR and eventually to other countries, such as Cuba. And, thankfully, the idea that the United States Government was filled with Commies died away after Joseph McCarthy left the scene.


As late as 1986, this (documented by Matt Armstrong) appeared in the Congressional Record. The main speaker was Edward Zorinsky, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Nebraska.

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that further reading of the amendment be dispensed with.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The amendment is as follows:

On page 19, after line 9 add the following new section:


No funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States. No program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States. This section shall not apply to programs carried out pursuant to the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, as amended (Public Law 87-256).

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I offer this amendment to prohibit USIA from engaging in domestic propaganda and to restate the existing prohibitions on domestic dissemination of USIA products.

By law, the USIA cannot engage in domestic propaganda. This distinguishes us, as a free society, from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.

There is considerable discussion within USIA about using the Agency's so-called second mandate to engage in domestic propaganda. The second mandate -- "telling America about the world" -- has never been implemented. It should not now be implemented as part of a USIA strategy to propagandize the American people on foreign policy issues.

The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her. My amendment ensures that this will not occur.

Mr. President, I have checked with the majority floor manager and the minority floor manager and they have indicated this may be acceptable to them.

Mr. LUGAR. Mr. President, the amendment of the distinguished Senator from Nebraska essentially restates law with regard to the USIA. The Senator feels that it is important that this law be not only restated but perhaps reenforced by the emphasis of this amendment. We accept the amendment and commend it to the Senate.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there further debate? If not, the question is on agreeing to the amendment.

The amendment (No. 296) was agreed to.

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I move to reconsider the vote by which the amendment was agreed to.

Mr. LUGAR. I move to lay that motion on the table.

The motion to lay on the table was agreed to.

Armstrong, looking at the events of 1986, as well as the earlier events from the 1940s, was forced to conclude:

Today is not like yesterday. In fact, it is more like yesterday’s yesterday than yesterday.

And with that appropriately convoluted explanation, I am about to tell American citizens how to break the law.
blog comments powered by Disqus