Some people speculated that if Trump lost the election he might start his own TV network. Well, Trump won, but it looks like he’s going to get his own media empire anyway. The only question left is who Trump will pick to run it.
Earlier this year, Congress introduced a law that will dissolve the existing leadership of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), America’s government-funded media channels that broadcast almost exclusively to foreign audiences. The BBG and its media operations were formerly overseen by a bipartisan panel. But this new law will let President Trump appoint a single CEO to the organization, allowing control of the nonprofit, government-funded media company to be streamlined and centralized.
Put more plainly: Donald Trump is about to have direct control over TV, radio, and internet news organizations that were originally designed to influence foreign audiences—mainly against Communism. And there’s nothing in place legally to stop this new media empire from having its information directed at Americans.
As a recent editorial in the Washington Post notes, “If Congress’s intention was for US broadcasting to rival the Kremlin’s, it may well get its wish.” And with Steve Bannon as Trump’s right hand man, we can probably guess the likely political leanings of America’s incoming CEO of propaganda. Bannon is the well known white supremacist founder of Breitbart News who complained to his ex-wife that their children went to school with too many Jews. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see Trump appoint someone who’s friendly to the neo-Nazi movement (sometimes called the alt-right) that’s currently poisoning so much of the media landscape.
The US House has already passed this new wide-ranging law, known as the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, and it’s on its way to the Senate. If it passes the Senate, which seems incredibly likely since it’s under Republican control, the bill will make its way to the desk of President Trump, who’s sure to sign it.
The text of the law is pretty astounding and outlines how US government-run news outlets like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks will all be overseen by a CEO directly appointed by the incoming president. There will be a kind of oversight board, but those positions will now be direct political appointees rather than comprised of a bipartisan group.
The law explains that there will be a new “single, consolidated private, non-profit corporation” that will “broadcast and provide news and information” around the world. The law goes on to explain that the CEO will have discretion over what and where to disseminate information. And to reiterate what I’ve noted before: There’s nothing in the law that would prohibit the newly reorganized company from broadcasting in the United States.
As the Washington Post reports, the Obama administration has supported the changes to the Broadcasting Board of Governors overall, but that support was perhaps more solid when lefties were confident that a Hillary Clinton presidential victory was imminent.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors was established in the 2004 after the United States Information Agency (USIA) was dissolved in the late 1990s. The USIA was originally created in 1953 as America’s propaganda arm during the first Cold War, intended for audiences around the world. Naturally, the primary focus of the USIA was an effort to combat Communism and advance American political and business interests.
While the USIA wasn’t seen as a direct arm of the US intelligence community, it still had a rather sordid history with the CIA, as I’ve noted in the past. The agency used to invent fake writers to write columns about economics, as was the case with a character named Guy Sims Fitch. Fitch, who was actually a fictitious economics expert created by editors at USIA, was published in mainstream news outlets in Germany, Australia, and Brazil, among a host of others. But my efforts to get the CIA to declassify information about Guy Sims Fitch have so far been in vain.
Both the USIA and BBG used to be prohibited from distributing news and information inside the United States because of fears over government-sponsored propaganda. But that 1948 law, known as the Smith-Mundt Act, was repealed in 2013. There will be nothing stopping the new state-run media agency from distributing propaganda dictated by the Trump White House inside the United States.
Of course, many people will note that government-sponsored propaganda on US soil isn’t terribly new. During the Cold War, American intelligence agencies would plant false stories, both through journalists who were directly on the Agency’s payroll and through the USIA in foreign countries. In fact, during the late 1970s the CIA was forced to admit to Congress that it had over 30 freelance American journalists under contract, and roughly 400 more around the world.
The CIA’s distribution of false information around the globe, which was intended to influence the decisions of foreign audiences in ways that would favor the United States, would sometimes make its way into American news sources. As such, the CIA developed an “early warning network” to alert high-ranking members of the American government when disinformation made its way to American shores. So far my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information about this “early warning network” have been rejected on national security grounds.
More recently, the Department of Defense sought to create an Office of Strategic Influence shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The explicit goal of the new office was to give news outlets false stories with the goal of confusing foreign enemies. The plan for the office was exposed by the New York Times in February of 2002 and supposedly (and begrudgingly) shut down by Donald Rumsfeld. Whether the termination of the project actually happened or not remains unclear.
Somewhat ironically, conservatives have historically been the biggest critics of USIA and BBG, claiming that they promote liberal values. And in the classical liberal sense, they most certainly do. But that interpretation also includes an American version of liberalism with a heavy dose of American-style capitalism. It will certainly be interesting to see how turning the BBG into an unabashedly biased tool of the president rather than a more measured bipartisan tool of international diplomacy will shake out.
I’ve reached out to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and will update this post if I hear back.