The paranoid voice of America

  • Article by: ROSA BROOKS
  • Updated: July 22, 2013 - 10:53 AM

Case in point: Reluctance to opening the airwaves here to some of the same quality programming U.S. agencies broadcast overseas.


A patron waves an American flag during a Fourth of July cruise on the Hudson River in New York, July 4, 2013.

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My fellow Americans, you’re a pretty weird bunch of people.

I say this with love. But really, what’s up with your attitude toward government?

On both the left and the right, Americans oscillate between a peculiar, irrational deference toward government and an equally peculiar, irrational suspicion of it.

On the left, a touching faith in the federal government’s ability to solve domestic social problems (poverty, ill health, etc.) by spending money is generally coupled with an absolute conviction that when it comes to foreign policy and national security, everything emanating from the federal government is a tissue of lies covering up a sinister imperialist conspiracy and/or destroying domestic civil liberties.

Meanwhile, on the right, a touching faith in the absolute rightness and virtue of the military and the absolute need to pour additional tax dollars into national security is usually coupled with an equally deep conviction that when it comes to federal spending on domestic programs, the government is a) lying, b) incompetent and c) determined to subvert our freedoms.

Of course, right and left occasionally find common ground in their shared conviction that the federal government is trying to control and brainwash us all.

Trust me, it’s not. It’s just not organized enough. And it’s just not interested enough. It’s got other things to do.

Nevertheless, last week saw yet another outbreak of our national paranoia about The Government. Late in 2012, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, and in January, President Obama signed it into law. The act repealed a Cold War-era prohibition on disseminating government information produced for foreign audiences inside the United States.

As of July 1, when the repeal took effect, radio and TV programs designed for non-U.S. audiences, such as those produced by Voice of America, can now be rebroadcast in the United States.

Left and right are temporarily united over the horror of “government propaganda” hitting the U.S. airwaves.

“Obama Launches Massive Domestic Propaganda Push With Government-Run News,” shrills Conservative News Central. “Coming soon to your living room: Government made propaganda,” laments a post on the Lonely Conservative blog.

Meanwhile, a blog post on snickers, “Now Legalized, US Propaganda Swears It’s ‘Fair and Accurate.’ ” On the progressive website Common Dreams, a post sneers, “Because the government doesn’t already wield enough power over what we see and hear,” the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will now allow government-produced information programs to “lie about how well our wars are going.”

OK, I guess I get it. With so much idiotic privately produced propaganda already widely available here in the U.S. of A., who needs government propaganda? Our private sector already does a fine job of disseminating inflammatory misinformation, thank you very much. I mean: We already have Fox News, Matt Drudge and TruthOut. We can already find plenty of media outlets that purvey shamelessly one-sided, irresponsible garbage. Why muddy the waters by adding government-funded news?

It reminds me of our collective outrage over NSA data collection: We’re fine with having unaccountable for-profit corporate entities collect all our data, but God forbid that our democratically elected government should collect the same data we offer Facebook with reckless abandon.

The irony, of course, is that, just as the government is likely to use our Internet data more responsibly than the private sector, the “government propaganda” that will supposedly flood the country as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is produced to a markedly higher journalistic standard than most of what passes for news here in the United States.

Let’s dispel some myths about the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

First, it has zero effect on the CIA or the Pentagon; Smith-Mundt only covers information programs produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The CIA and the Pentagon remain subject to entirely different laws and restrictions on certain kinds of domestic activities. If the CIA starts propagandizing you, it won’t be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. If DOD funds something dumb, it won’t be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

Second, the ban on domestic dissemination of BBG TV and radio shows was simply unworkable in the age of the Internet. The Internet is global. There is literally no way to prevent a show produced for foreign audiences from being accessed by Americans. In this sense, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act just acknowledges reality: Anyone, anywhere in the world, can access BBG programs. The only thing that’s really changed as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is that Americans no longer have to work harder than foreigners to access the U.S.-funded radio and TV programs readily available overseas.

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