By Patricia H. Kushlis
The U.S. government just embarked upon its newest international
media adventure. No, I don’t mean via Facebook,
Twitter, Linked-In, You-Tube, webpages or other bits of the social media. That’s old news. The State Department,
Embassies abroad and our international radios have used the social media – more
and less – effectively for the past several years. What I’m referring to is making it legal for American
citizens living in the US to access US government broadcasts and web-based electronic
materials directed at foreigners for the first time.
The recently amended Smith-Mundt Act was enacted in the
1950s supposedly to protect pristine American eyes and ears from US government
propaganda (a word made pejorative by Hitler and Stalin) but in reality the ear-plugs
and blinders came into force more to protect the interests of the Associated
Press which feared government competition to its then fledgling foreign news
By the 1990s, Internet and satellite transmissions had obviated
the Smith-Mundt ban. Long before that, short-wave
radio hams throughout the US regularly accessed Voice of America broadcasts and
even on dark winter nights when I was a teenager, I could hear the VOA signal
and its Yankee Doodle Dandy fife and drum corps theme song in California on my small
transistor radio when the antenna pointed towards the northeast. The station came in just as loud and clear
then – if not clearer – than VOA did in my Moscow apartment in 1980.
How harmful is access to national public radio stations
designed to sell US foreign policies abroad to American citizens? It’s not as if the US government monopolizes
the airwaves in this country. Or that
the vast majority of Americans are going to switch the dial from the
infotainment programs or worse that they’ve become addicted to US government
newscasts or editorials aimed at explaining the US to foreigners. Fat chance.
Or that our huge commercial media conglomerates will
suddenly become divorced from their all too cozy relationships with the
government and/or opposition media handlers and report unbiased news for a
change as opposed to airing verbatim contents of the latest media blurbs from
their favorite sources that regularly scroll across reporters’ computer screens
or clog the Inbox.
Smith-Mundt the least of the problems
Nevertheless, I’ve never been convinced that a repeal or
revision of this outdated law was worth the effort. I’m not opposed to the revision but there are
far more serious questions about the dysfunctional way these radio stations are
currently governed and administered, the contents of their broadcasts, and the
languages in which they broadcast.
for instance, does the US need an unwieldy conglomeration of publicly funded separately
operated surrogate radio stations like Radio Marti or Radio Free anything –
except to appease specific Congressional constituencies and play to their
biases? This especially when the US
government can’t even muster the political will to appoint a handful of people
– let alone qualified ones – to the overarching, bipartisan Board of
International Broadcasting that supposedly sets the rules for and tone.
Why wouldn’t one worldwide service like the BBC with
separate language services within a single independent government broadcasting institution
be as successful – if not more so – than the expensive morass we’ve got now?
Lied to by Omission
In the New York Time’s July 21, 2013 Sunday Review, Turkish
journalist Yavuz Baydar bemoans the lack of Turkish media coverage of the huge Gezi
Park demonstrations at Istanbul’s Taksim Square in June which instead, he observed,
broadcast stories of “penguins waddling across the ice of Antartica.” Now
that’s real reporting for you.
I remember such similar non-coverage by Russian state
television of the shootout at the Russian parliament in 1993 as well as the
paucity of US media coverage of the large American anti-war demonstrations in
Washington, New York and elsewhere prior to the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Or what about US cable television’s refusal to carry Al Jazeera
– until next month, that is, and only after the Qatari based company bought Al Gore’s
Current TV channel so our experts who avidly follow the
fluid Middle East situation can also watch the company’s
broadcasts on cable, not just via the Internet? Providing, of course, Comcast can’t find some other excuse to keep
the ban in place and Al Jazeera programs away from American hearts and
Turkish media are not necessarily all that different.
Baydar argues that the current situation in Turkey came
about because of the all too close cooperation between the Turkish corporate
conglomerates that include broadcast media among their many holdings and the Erdogan
government in the traditional “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine”
Baydar suggests that the problem affects much of Southeast
Europe as well. The same criticism, in my view, is also applicable to the too
close US government-corporate media relationship right here in the USA. Baydar argues that an autonomous and
independent public broadcasting system would resolve the situation in Turkey by
guaranteeing “the public’s right to know without interference from corporate
Well would it – when push comes to shove?
Even the venerable BBC which Baydar holds up
as a model went blank during the Falklands War and US media – at the
request of the US government – did not publish reports of American hostages
secreted away in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. Until
that is, they had safely left Iran masquerading as members of a film crew. Both governmentally inspired decisions which did have national security merit.
Then there was the way the Pentagon swayed American reporters
by imbedding them with the troops to ensure they only saw the Donald Rumsfeld-Dick
Cheney view of the Iraq invasion which, in the end, failed to square with reality.
Yet I don’t recall that PBS was more immune to the administration’s blinders
and manipulation of the free press than reporters working for the
Or this spring’s most recent example: when PBS cancelled a special on the billionaire righter-than-
Attila Brothers Koch whose financial support to the station was suddenly more
important than telling the American public the truth about the pair’s multiple questionable
It seems to me then that there is no perfect answer to this age old probem – it all
depends upon who controls the medium and how the person or organization chooses
to use it. This takes us back to the
First Amendment’s freedom of the press.
News reporting is in my view – even in the best of times – rarely truly objective.
Reporters and editors have their bosses
and biases. Stories are reported from the vantage point of
the individual reporter who hopefully was there on the scene. They are run, or
not, based on a host of not necessarily objective criteria. Sometimes non-stories aka infotainment are broadcast
while critical news is left out for noble – and sometimes not so noble –
Perhaps in the end, in these Internet days the best
one can hope for is access to as wide an array of sources and reports as
possible. Then take it from there.