Social media posts falsely claim that former President Barack Obama signed a bill that made it permissible for “the media” to get “away with lying.” The bill had no bearing on private media outlets or what they can report.
“Have you ever wondered how the media gets away with lying? It’s because on 12/29/2012, Barack Obama signed the NDAA bill. (HR 4310 / Sec 1078),” the posts read. “This authorized the use of propaganda within America – which had been illegal since 1948.”
Obama signed H.R. 4310, or the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, in January 2013, but nothing in that bill applies to what private media organizations in the U.S. are allowed, or not allowed, to report or publish. That independence is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In reality, one section of that massive bill lifted a decades-old ban on content produced by media organizations funded by the government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (now called the United States Agency for Global Media) from being distributed domestically.
Some history: In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed into law a charter for Voice of America, a government-funded broadcast station. Its stated mission was to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” for the world. Included in its principles: “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive … and will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
Today, the U.S. Agency for Global Media oversees Voice of America and also supports other networks, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The agency’s overarching mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
In a fact sheet, the agency said the 2013 change in the law “allows the agency and its broadcasters to respond positively to requests from within the United States for their content. Much, but not all, of this programming is now available online.” Still, it notes, the agency “is not authorized to begin broadcasting or to create programming for audiences in the United States. We do not seek to change that. USAGM continues to focus on overseas audiences.”
The agency rejects the notion that its supported outlets create “propaganda.”
“Our journalists must abide by legally mandated broadcasting standards and principles to present accurate and objective news and information,” the agency’s fact sheet said. “They provide responsible discussion and open debate in places where it is rare in the media. To call these efforts ‘propaganda’ is an affront to those journalists, many of whom work in some of the roughest spots in the world, putting themselves and their loved ones at great risk.”
Voice of America also notes that U.S. law guarantees a “firewall” that “prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference … The firewall ensures that VOA can make the final decisions on what stories to cover, and how they are covered.”
Regardless of one’s opinion about those organizations, the changes in law dealt with allowing government broadcasts created for international audiences to be made available in the U.S. As we said, the bill Obama signed didn’t have anything to do with the reporting of traditional, private news organizations in the U.S.
And while the posts blame Obama for the bill, it’s worth noting that a Republican-controlled House approved the legislation in 2012 — with more Republicans (205) voting in favor than Democrats (110). The section of the bill that reversed restrictions on government-funded news programming originated as a separate bill with bipartisan support: the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was co-sponsored by Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas.
In a press release at the time, Thornberry’s office said that the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (known as the Smith-Mundt Act) was a “Cold War-era law that hampers diplomatic, defense, and other agencies’ ability to communicate in the 21st century.”
“For example, in 2009 the law prohibited a Minneapolis-based radio station with a large Somali-American audience from replaying a Voice of America-produced piece rebutting terrorist propaganda,” the release said. “Even after the community was targeted for recruitment by al-Shabab and other extremists, government lawyers refused the replay request, noting that Smith-Mundt tied their hands.”
“Facts About Smith-Mundt Modernization.” U.S. Agency for Global Media. Accessed 17 Oct 2019.
“Final Vote Results for Roll Call 645.” U.S. House. 20 Dec 2012.
“Mission.” U.S. Agency for Global Media. Accessed 17 Oct 2019.
“Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present.” U.S. House. Accessed 17 Oct 2019.
“Statement by the the President on H.R. 4310.” Obama White House. 3 Jan 2013.
“Thornberry and Smith Introduce bill to help counter threats in information age.” Press release, Office of U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry. 15 May 2012.
U.S. House. “H.R. 4310, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.” (as signed into law 2 Jan 2013)