Some important essays and articles on Public Diplomacy in the era of the U.S. Information Agency were published in its in-house magazine, USIA World. Copies of the magazine have never been archived on the internet, so its valuable record of USIA programs and concepts is largely unavailable for reference by scholars and practitioners.
In 1990 I wrote out a defense of Public Diplomacy against the loose talk that it was “propaganda.” The notion has not gone away, and every new academic course in communications, public affairs, and Public Diplomacy must mention and deal with the old charge. I pushed back: “The men and women of USIA are not payrolled shills for an American propaganda offensive.”
The full article, “USIA’s Work is ‘Not Propaganda,” appeared in the December, 1990, issue of USIA World. If you substitute “Public Diplomacy” for each mention of “USIA,” it still makes useful points – that Public Diplomacy provides “accurate information identified by source,” that American Public Diplomacy seeks to demonstrate that U.S. proposals offer mutual benefits, and the benefit of combining “information” and “cultural” activities in one organization. Click here for the full article. Here are some key paragraphs.
If “propaganda” is how information work that directly supports foreign policy goals is characterized, then it needs a new internal self-concept.
Let me suggest a new formula — that information officers are “honest advocates” of administration policies.
On one hand, USIA’s information officers are advocates because they hope the facts they provide, the briefings they give, the backgrounders they issue, and the statements they give the press as official spokespersons all demonstrate the logic of American policy. USIA is part of the Foreign Service, and information officers need not apologize that their work aims ultimately at persuasion.
Admittedly, the “U.S. policies” that information officers advocate are administration policies, and are concurrently Republican or Democratic policies depending on which party is in power. This is because the Foreign Service is pledged to advance the policies formulated by those the American people have elected. The entire process accords with the Constitution. If it is this that makes an information officer a propagandist, I recommend a refresher course in the institutional processes of American foreign policy, which works to meld different political and social perspectives into a foreign policy that is far more “American” than it is politically partisan.
In addition, Public Diplomacy officers are honest advocates because American political ethics and social morality proscribe the instruments of “propaganda.”
The tools and methods of U.S. information officers — open press conferences, interviews, provision of administration statements and testimony before Congress, Q&As with interlocutors representing all points of view — are straightforward and aboveboard.
Ambassadors who have been so brash as to tell the Voice of America what it should say on a given subject quickly learn that VOA writes the news based on journalistic, not political standards.
USIA has no directorate of “active measures.” A Wireless File writer is not an apparatchik consulting party doctrine before writing his stories. Information officers at embassies have no stable of paid journalists or suborned editorial writers that can echo propaganda themes on demand. These are the techniques of propaganda, the discredited methods of the opposition.
It was not USIA that propagated falsehoods about the generation of the AIDS virus in bacterial warfare laboratories.
What a company of honest advocates doesn’t need is for its work to be crippled or discredited — or its organization to be changed — because of loose thinking and careless talk about “propaganda.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.