Breaking News: Propaganda Is No Longer Sort of Banned

by: Stephen Paulsen

July 21, 2013

The U.S. government is now allowed to distribute propaganda domestically. It has been doing that anyways for a long, long time.


In one news story, NSA chief Keith Alexander explains that their spy program has prevented “dozens” of attacks; a week later, in a nearly-indistinguishable article, that statistic has become “50+.” Headlines refer to PRISM as “critical” and Ed Snowden as a “leaker.” There is a prominently-featured article about the controversial “Rolling Stone” cover of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—and another about how the judge in United States v. Bradley Manning will retain a “key charge against Manning”—which are presented without counterargument. Welcome to

At first glance, there is nothing particularly remarkable about VOA (short for “Voice of America”) News. If anything, it epitomizes the bland lack of analysis that Americans have come to expect from the major news outlets. But VOA News does more than parrot the government’s opinion. Instead, it literally is the government’s opinion, a state-run news agency in the spirit of Russia’s RT network or China’s Xinhua—and something which has been illegal in this country since World War II. But since Congress repealed that decades-old ban last week, it is a voice that Americans will now be hearing from.

Historically, the United States has had an unusual relationship with propaganda. The first major instances of American propaganda occurred during World War I, when Woodrow Wilson created the “Committee on Public Information,” usually known by its less Orwellian pseudonym, the “Creel Committee.” The goal of the committee, in the words of chairman George Creel, was to produce “propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.’” At its height, the Creel Committee was influencing an estimated 20,000 newspaper articles per day.

The Creel Committee’s undertakings extended well beyond media production to censorship and lobbying. In the realm of lawmaking, the committee helped pass the Espionage Act of 1917—which made it treasonous to leak information deemed important to the national defense—and the Sedition Act of 1918, which outlawed “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government (i.e., dissent). The Espionage Act remains in effect to this day, and has been used to press charges against Bradley Manning, Ed Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, the “Pentagon Papers” whistleblower.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt also showed an affinity for propaganda, establishing the “Office of the Coordinator of Information.” (Shortly thereafter, the agency was split into the “Office of Strategic Services,” a precursor to the CIA, and the “Office of War Information,” which continued the propaganda activities of its predecessor.) The Office of War Information (and its predecessor) created many of the emblematic graphics of the war, and first produced the “Voice of America” radio broadcasts which would later become an iconic part of America’s Cold War strategy abroad. In addition, the office inspected virtually every major motion picture script from this era; only Paramount Pictures declined the encroachment. Throughout the inquiries, the operative question always remained, “will this picture help us end the war?”

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Nevertheless, Roosevelt was forced to contend with the poor legacy of the Creel Committee, which had been known for its heavy-handedness. The “Writers’ War Board”—an organization formed by detective writer Rex Stout with the expressed purpose of aiding U.S. war efforts—provided Roosevelt with the unique opportunity to eschew blatant propaganda. He heaped funding and directives onto the Writers’ War Board, effectively subsuming it. Therefore, although the agency remained technically outside the bounds of the government, the media it produced was official state propaganda in a very real sense.

Americans’ taste for propaganda soured over the course of these two wars. In 1948, three years after WWII had ended, Harry Truman signed the Smith-Mundt Act, which banned the domestic distribution of state department propaganda. The law targeted Voice of America specifically, requiring that “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States…not be disseminated within the United States.” Outside of the country, meanwhile, the government remained free to proselytize all it wanted.

From the very start, the effects of the Smith-Mundt Act were negligible. For anyone who wanted to get around the law, Roosevelt’s handling of the Writers’ War Board proved an excellent blueprint. Organizations which were now technically private continued to rely on the federal government for funding and for raison d’etre. Thus, for instance, the WWII-era “War Advertisement Council” has remained a major facet of American life, albeit with the new, more upbeat name, the “Ad Council.” This ubiquitous, quasi-private organization is responsible for “Smokey the bear,” “McGruff the crime dog” and that famous “Crying Indian” television commercial from the 1970s, to name a few of their campaigns.

In 1988, Congress passed the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act,” which increased the overall onerousness of the War on Drugs. The act mandated, among other things, that all employers maintain a drug-free workplace, and that they contact a federal agency within ten days of learning about an employee’s drug conviction. Perhaps most significantly, it created the “Office of National Drug Control Policy” with the expressed purpose of creating anti-drug propaganda, which would be exempt from the ban. Officially, this propaganda was known as the “National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.”

Bona fide government propaganda had once again become a reality in the United States, albeit with a very particular scope. Almost immediately, Nancy Reagan embarked to schools across the country, spreading her cheery appeal to “just say no.” And although the campaign has proved notoriously ineffective—the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that some of the anti-drug advertisements made people more likely to do drugs—it remains a multimillion dollar part of the annual budget.

As of this month, however, these workarounds are irrelevant. Several months ago, Congress amended the Smith-Mundt Act to allow for domestic propaganda, and that ruling went into effect on July 2. No longer will the U.S. government have to rely exclusively on quasi-private institutions to spread the good word of Americanism. Now Voice of America will be available to Americans, as will be “Washington Forum,” VOA’s goofy television offshoot.

Outrage ensued almost immediately across the political spectrum, uniting both liberals and conservatives. Is the hubbub merited, or merely a false alarm? Only time will tell.

On the one hand, propaganda has long been a de facto part of American life, though it has historically been under the guise of technically-private institutions like the Ad Council. And since the original Smith-Mundt Act actively forbids Americans from viewing state department propaganda—the act states that “information produced by VOA…shall be made available for examination only to Members of Congress”—there is some truth to government spokeswoman Lynne Weil’s claim that the amendment will produce “greater transparency” by allowing Americans “to know…what they are paying for with their tax dollars.” (Given the magnitude of the government’s debt, however, a more pertinent question might be why we are still paying for these programs at all.)

On the other hand, there is something reflexively disconcerting about the government’s legalization of propaganda and the audacity that it would seem to suggest. Some have raised questions about neutrality, which seems particularly relevant to our deeply-divided political system and ever-ballooning election cycles. And now that the government is allowed to produce propaganda aimed at its own citizens, there is a very real possibility that its quantity will increase.

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Far more disconcerting, however, is the way in which Congress amended the Smith-Mundt act. For several years, Congress has passed an annual “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA), which partially determines how the Department of Defense will use its budget. And, for several years now, Congress has routinely slipped in completely unrelated legislation.

The 2010 version of the NDAA expanded the definition of hate crimes, which, although probably the right thing to do, has absolutely nothing to do with the defense budget. The 2012 version allowed for the indefinite detention of American citizens; now, in the 2013 version, propaganda has been legalized. Sure, this recent change in propaganda law will most likely be a subtle one for anyone who remembers Smokey the bear or McGruff the crime dog. But that doesn’t make the general deceitfulness of our Congress any less troubling.


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