The "P" Word
Wednesday, May 30th 2012
There's been a lot of propagandizing lately about something that isn't propaganda.
I'm talking about the fuss that’s been stirred up by the proposal to amend the Smith-Mundt Act so that Americans can more easily scrutinize content that has been produced on their behalf for foreign audiences.
Suddenly everybody’s hair is on fire. People who usually call for more transparency and more openness of what government is doing are now fretting that exposing Americans to that stuff poses some kind of danger.
Well, there are dangers in this world, but this is not one of them.
This spun-up controversy reminds me of what happened during the war in Iraq. Journalists had been demanding better access to the battlefield and to the troops during wartime since, well, forever. So in 2003, Torie Clarke, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, pushed the Defense Department to give them just that. The result: Hundreds of journalists were embedded with units of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and given unprecedented access to the conflict. They produced some of the most informed and comprehensive coverage ever seen in a modern war. And what happened after that? Critics started complaining that the journalists were too close, and the friendships they formed with the men and women who were fighting the war hindered their ability to cover it objectively.
Sometimes you can’t win. And this criticism of the proposal to modernize Smith-Mundt falls into that category.
I’ve written about this legislation before (the title of my commentary – Smith-Mundt: Time for a Change – makes clear where I stand), so I won’t repeat those arguments. But I will say that the critics are way off on this one. The obsolete bits of Smith-Mundt have been indisputably OBE (overtaken by events) as well as by technology. The only people who are being legally discouraged from seeing and hearing and reading things like Voice of America broadcasts are the people who paid for them: American citizens. It's time to fix that.
If you're really troubled by the effort to bring this law into the 21st century, please watch some of VOA's broadcasts (despite Smith-Mundt, they’re easily found at www.voanews.com) and then compare them to what you see – and the stories you don’t see because they aren’t covered – on RT (Russia Today) and CCTV (China Central Television).
Then you’ll know what real propaganda looks like.