[image src=”http://www.darrenkrape.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/smith-mundt.jpg” caption=”Photo by Yael Swerdlow” align=”left”]

This post grew out of the recent Smith-Mundt Symposium, though since the conference was about a month ago, it is a bit late to the party. Several individuals have already written good summaries of the day’s discussion, so I direct you to those first.

That being said, there are a few points relating to the general conversation on Smith-Mundt and public diplomacy/strategic communications that are worth making (or reiterating).

First my general read-out of the event is that the issue remains quite contentious and with little overall agreement. Many argue the law should be kept, or even strengthened (and its remit expanded to the entire U.S. government) while others argue it should be completely repealed. A third group feel the argument is pointless since the law is out-dated and should be ignored, which can be done since, in the end, there are no “Smith-Mundt police” to arrest anyone for violating the law.

Smith-Mundt is a multi-faceted piece of legislation, dealing with the structure of public diplomacy, creating cultural exchanges, as well as the much argued ban on domestic distribution. Since the latter restriction has become the most contentious part of the act, I will focus my summary and comments here.

Position One: A Stronger Ban on Domestic Distribution

Voice of America

During the discussion, the first group pointed to several cases where the U.S. government attempted to “propagandize” the American public to argue for expanding the law. The two most prominent examples being the Department of Defense’s efforts to influence Iraq news coverage and the fictional reporter Karen Ryan who promoted government the Bush administration’s Medicare program.

Another camp that supports the continuation of Smith-Mundt are, interestingly, those working in the government on public diplomacy and strategic communication. For them, Smith-Mundt protects their from the over-zealous members of the public criticizing their products. For example, it allows the government to be self critical without being brought before Congress and accused of wasting tax-payer dollars on products that make the United States look bad. This is a consideration since the products produced by the U.S. government for public diplomacy are created with a foreign audience in mind and designed to their interests. So content tailored for an audience in Cuba may prove discordant to domestic Cuban-Americans. Having to please both a domestic and foreign audience, who may have widely divergent views of the United States and its values, is likely to result in material that resonates with neither audience.

Position Two: Abolishing the Ban on Domestic Distribution

For those who think Smith-Mundt should be abolished, there seem to be three main threads, two related to the lack of domestic oversight.

First, because there is no domestic distribution of these products, the work of these units in the government are pretty much invisible to the U.S. taxpayer. Unless you are in the intelligence business, you don’t want to be invisible to the hand that feeds you come budget time. Since there is no domestic awareness of these programs, there are no advocates for this type of work in Congress, so public diplomacy programs covered under Smith-Mundt are often marginalized and thusly poorly resourced.

The second side-effect of the lack of domestic oversight is you lose the expertise of the American public. This should not be understated, the U.S. is a diverse country with many first and second generation immigrants. These individuals have nuanced understanding of their originating country and culture. Having them contribute to information programs, either by commenting on existing products or suggesting new avenues of engagement, could make these efforts more relevant and resonant to focus populations.

The last argument for abolishing Smith-Mundt is that it restricts the ability of the U.S. government to engage the domestic population in public diplomacy programs. For example, many have pointed to public to public exchanges (either in person or online) as a key method for creating greater understanding between cultures. However, since helping to coordinate such efforts could include distributing government-funded information to domestic audiences, this activity could come under the perview of Smith-Mundt restrictions.

Position Three: Ignoring Smith-Mundt

The last group of commentators basically argue that Smith-Mundt is outdated and, since there is no history of enforcement, can safely be ignored. This contingent seems to be largely made up retired foreign service officers. In their work overseas, Smith-Mundt never came up and, as such, was soundly ignored.

Since there is little provision for enforcement, and no one has been prosecuted for running afoul of Smith-Mundt, those working in Washington can also safely ignore the act and go about their daily business.

My Take

The question of domestic distribution is a challenging one and I can appreciate the arguments on both sides. There certainly needs to be some restriction on domestic propaganda, as evidenced by the actions of the Department of Defense and the Bush administration’s fake reporter. However, in this increasingly transparent world, such a restriction should be largely unnecessary since dishonest efforts like these will almost certainly unmasked. Such programs make the government look underhanded and untrustworthy, thus doing more harm than good. Any agency that professes transparency while willfully trying to mislead the public (foreign or domestic) shouldn’t be communicating in the first place.

The question of oversight is, for me, more tricky. For every individual who’s unique cultural understanding can benefit information programs, there is another who will angrily disagree with a product, and quite willing to take this quarrel to their Congressperson. How to balance the positive and negative influences of domestic oversight is a key question without an easy answer. Much of it will come down to, first, education, explaining the methods and goals of public diplomacy, and, second, demonstrating the context in which an information campaign is being delivered.

In the end however, I feel Smith-Mundt does need to be revisited with new legislation for one key reason: information is global, in a way never envisioned by the original drafters of the act. Restricting the distribution of a book or movie was easy when it was intricately tied to a physical medium (a rivalrous good, to use an economist term). Now, something the government publishes on the web for a foreign audience, is available anywhere, easily recopied and quickly disseminated further. And that introduces significant ambiguity in those engaging in public diplomacy online. For example, could tailoring a website to rank higher in search rankings be considered domestic dissemination since all of the most popular engines have large numbers of American users?

Ultimately, I think the real goal here should be transparency. The main objective with the ban on domestic dissemination is to prevent the U.S. government from surreptitiously influencing the American public. If viewers, domestic and foreign, are fore-warned that the content they are viewing was created by the government, they can then make their own judgments as to its veracity. After all, when delivering information on United States’ policy, how is the work of public diplomats all that different from public affairs officials? Certainly public diplomacy and public affairs are two different activities, but, in the end, their goal is to inform, and thereby influence, public opinion.

Besides, to be a credible voice, the government needs to be honest and open. If something is produced by the government or with government money, it should be stated as such. Perhaps Smith-Mundt 2.0 should be one line: “Information programs funded by the government should be identified as such, and strive for honesty, objectivity and transparency.”

As Edward R Murrow, journalist and former director of the United States Information Agency once said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”

This post has 5 Comments

  1. Darren,

    Thanks for another excellent posting.

    As a foreign FSO who served in communist Eastern Europe, I’m glad I was never asked to lecture to local audiences on why Americans were prohibited from listening to Willis Conover’s immensely popular jazz programs on VOA … it would have been somewhat embarrassing to explain why the world’s leading democracy banned the domestic dissemination of programs that represented “the voice of freedom” to many people overseas.

  2. Good, thoughtful piece. You’re helping to get this important debate out into the open, before a larger audience than those traditonally interested in PD issues.

  3. Greg, thanks for the comment. It is great to have people like you also working to bring attention to the issues we face with the current legislation.

    John, Thanks for the link on today’s PD media review.

    It is great you mentioned VOA since Greg wrote a fantastic piece “Smith-Mundt: Censorship American Style?” which really highlights the quality U.S. programming being censored by Smith-Mundt.

  4. Darren, I arrive at your posting a little belatedly, but you’ll be happy to know that one more person (besides Matt Armstrong) cares about Smith-Mundt. I think your comments are very well stated – thorough, judicious, and fair to the arguments on both sides. One way of considering this law is to ask, “If Smith-Mundt did not exist, would we see need to create such a law?”‘ I think not. I say this as one who at this very moment faces congressional pressure generated by a taxpayer to take down a photo of a particular Muslim organization on America.gov. Over the years I’ve been one of those who has pointed out that one virtue of the law is that it shields us in PD work to some extent from becoming entangled in domestic political debates. At the same time, it taints us unnecessarily with the notion that we are producing “propaganda.” George

  5. I thought the Defense Department was dolnig out propaganda daily through Pentagon news briefing and official statements released to the MSM. Given the largely unquestioned and generally accepted Defense Department’s lines by the MSM, it’s hard to imagine how the American people can be anymore indoctrinated then they already are.

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