I recently read a BBGWatch report about violations at the USAGM, specifically RFE/RL, as pointed out in the New York times, regarding the Smith-Mundt Act. USAGM, as a reminder, is the United States Agency for Global Media, replacing the BBG. The original report was released yesterday through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Royce Releases U.S. Int’l Broadcasting Oversight Report
Then I read through the original report: December 2018 Oversight Investigation, U.S. Int’l Broadcasting in the Digital Age: Getting Advertising Right.
It didn’t feel right, it didn’t smell right, something wasn’t right. During the buildup to 2012, I was closely following Matt Armstrong’s efforts to right the wrong that was the Smith-Mundt Act and especially its misinterpretation within the US Government.
So I wrote to Matt Armstrong, who I consider a certified authority on the Smith-Mundt Act and was instrumental at pushing for the Smith-Mundt Modernization act of 2012 (contained within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (section 1078 (a))).
Here is what Matt Armstrong had to say:
“First, BBGWatch, like Royce, misses the issue.
Second, no, the modernization act of 2013 limited the prohibition on availability. This is not the same as circulation. There was never a prohibition on circulation. If you could get the product, whether it was something from IIP (like a bio of Lincoln they produced), or pics from an Embassy PAS (public diplomacy product thus off limits), or something from VOA (from online, tape recording, whatever), you could do anything you wanted with it.
Third, the report is accurate in spirit and wrong in its argument. See https://twitter.com/mountainrunner/status/1076505563364814848
… it’s a thread starting with one image showing how the content was to be available domestically and then linking to a full thread I wrote last night that delves into the report. I’ll probably write this up as some kind of article to go somewhere.
In short, the Royce report is wrong on the “501” violation of domestic dissemination. There is a serious failure here, but that’s not it. The placing of ads arguably makes the audience aware of something which they then access on their own accord. The problem here is the intended audience, an audience served by the domestic media. The Congress was very — crystal, in fact — clear on this point: no competition with private media. In fact, the government media is to draw down as the private media steps up in the foreign markets that were targeted. There is no plausible argument that AGM believes the US market is underserved by private media, so it is a violation of the non-compete clause I draw out in the tweet thread, and which *was* highlighted in the modernization act (you’re welcome, because I made sure it was there).
Now, let’s for the sake of argument, say that the US market was deemed to be suffering from access and AGM felt it needed to provide material to the audience. Then there’s another clause *in the original Smith-Mundt that remains today, and was also highlighted in the modernization act of 2013 — instructing AGM to utilize private media, including content from private media not just distribution, “to the maximum extent possible.” In other words, if AGM felt the American market was underserved, then surely they could find AP etc content to push through and not write their own, even if AP etc was used for the reporting.
Fourth, I must have missed where in the Congressional authorizations and appropriations language, and the OMB guidance, and the plans submitted to the Congress, that the AGM was to consider the US market a target market. That is not what the English service of VOA or the English products from RFE/RL or RFA are supposed to target, and yet a cursory read of these and one feels strongly they were written for an American audience and not a non-native American-English speaker that isn’t immersed in American political culture. Thus this is a management issue. The agencies funds are misdirected toward markets the agency should not, and has never been told to, intentionally reach.”
A little background on how this report was released. This is the “stank” which must be endured in Washington DC. I suggest you read through the entire thread.
For specifics (Sec 502 of the original Smith-Mundt now aka 22 USC 1462 or 22 USC 1437 was Sec 1005 of the original Smith-Mundt) see the tweet thread. That includes links.
Once the lawyers get it straight, what is legal and not, the report may be amended and the USAGM, I’m certain, will re-educate their staff and those of all their networks.