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Taxpayer money at work: US-funded foreign broadcasts finally available in the US

Voice of America staff are seen with Myanmar President Thein Sein before a town hall event at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington on May 20. Voice of America is the largest and oldest network of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which will now be allowed in U.S. markets.
Voice of America staff are seen with Myanmar President Thein Sein before a town hall event at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington on May 20. Voice of America is the largest and oldest network of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which will now be allowed in U.S. markets.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

News consumers in the U.S. can now hear and watch reports from one of the largest broadcasting groups in the world — after decades of their taxpayer dollars funding them.

The change is due to a law, which went into effect on July 2, that authorizes an independent network of U.S. government-supported broadcasters called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to transmit their programs — which include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — to U.S. households.

BBG's mission, according to its website, is to "inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy." Its budget for the 2012 fiscal year, fully funded by taxpayers, was $752.7 million, according to a spokeswoman.

But since 1948, BBG had only been allowed to disseminate its material to foreign listeners — this due to a law called the Smith-Mundt Act passed three years after World War II.

The purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act — also called the U.S. Information and Education Exchange Act of 1948 — was to "promote a better understanding of the United States in other countries, and to increase a mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries."

The law was first challenged in 1972 when J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., declared the U.S. was funding propaganda, and argued Voice of America, BBG's oldest and biggest network, "should be given the opportunity to take [its] rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Further restrictions on the dissemination of the material were implemented.

"The domestic dissemination ban was not really intended to protect the American public from propaganda," Emily Metzgar, a professor at Indiana University school of journalism and a former U.S. diplomat who supports the change to the law, said. "The historical record suggests it was really more about protecting a nascent broadcast industry in the United States right after World War II, and it was over time that more and more politics got interjected into the discussion." 

Last year, two lawmakers proposed the bipartisan Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012.

Introduced by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Adam Smith, D-Wash., the Modernization Act amended the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act so BBG's U.S.-funded, foreign audience-intended broadcasts could finally be heard in the U.S. It became law on July 2.

A spokeswoman for BBG pointed out the broadcast group's content had been available online for years, and that the new law just makes their programs accessible in broadcast quality in the U.S. to anyone who requests them.

She also responded to a slew of recent news headlines that suggested BBG would be spreading propaganda, including one from Foreign Policy magazine, which read, "U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans."

"Just because a news organization receives government funding doesn't mean it disseminates propaganda,"  Lynne Weil, director of communications and external affairs for BBG, said, citing Britain's BBC as a government-supported media outlet. 

Metzgar, the former U.S. diplomat, was relaxed about the change.

"Everyone who is consuming any news at all should be media-literate, reading from a wide range of sources, triangulating what they can about the truth. In that sense, I'm not particularly alarmed about the government having a new path to propagandize the public," she said.

A State Department official said in an emailed statement to NBC News that "the statutory intent remains for us to focus such materials on foreign audiences and not to pro-actively create materials for domestic audiences or pro-actively distribute our materials domestically."

BBG's journalists risk their lives to report in more than 100 countries and 61 languages, Weil said.

"This is good-quality reporting in places where many U.S. media may not have correspondents. Why shouldn't it be available in the United States?" she said. "U.S. taxpayers should know what they're funding."

Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America employee based in California who retired from the network in 2006, said his biggest concern about BBG expanding into the American market was the quality of their journalism diminishing.

"The agency has been very badly mismanaged in recent years," he said. "What I suspect will happen is that they will de-emphasize providing news and information for foreign audiences, which is their core and primary mission, and they will focus on the domestic market."

Weil denied that will be an issue.

"The target audience for BBG broadcasters will still be international – that is, individuals living in countries where the media are not entirely free.  The new law doesn't change the legislation that mandates the BBG to focus on audiences overseas, nor are we seeking to change that," she said.  

"It also does not direct or allow the BBG itself to begin broadcasting in the United States, and we do not seek to do that, either.  But the new law does mean that the entire range of great journalism that U.S. taxpayer-supported civilian broadcasters produce can now be seen and heard by more people — including the ones who pay for it," she added.