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Premises for Propaganda

November 14, 2011

Continuing my campaign of digging into some of the older Public Diplomacy literature, this  morning’s offering is Leo Bogart, Premises for Propaganda: The United States Information Agency’s Operating Assumptions in the Cold War.  Published in 1976 this was an abridged version of a study that was carried out in 1953-54.  The intention was to investigate the working assumptions of the USIA in the belief that this exercise would reveal areas where practice diverged from best practice. According to Bogart when the report was submitted it was classified and not acted on and was not published until freedom of information legislation was passed in the early ’70s.

Bogart’s project interviewed 142 members of the USIA across different levels and sections of the organization.  The sample is light on field workers and overrepresents on the management levels.  The interviews took around two hours and covered a comprehensive range of topics.  The book explores views on the objectives of the Agency, how it makes policy, who its targets should be, the extent to which it should focus on projecting America vs attacking communism, images of the audience, views on truth and credibility, the importance of different media, the quality of personnel and evaluation.

If the expectation was that the study would reveal limited areas of disagreement it spectacularly failed : in every area there are substantial disagreements over what the Agency should be doing and how to do them.  This comprehensive lack of consensus may explain the reluctance to publish the report.  The report concludes with a list of 113 questions for further research and 23 questions that need to be resolved at a policy level.

The major weakness of the report is the lack of any systematic effort to explain the lack of agreement.  There are plenty of possible explanations; differences between field and headquarters, generational differences, differences between personnel with media and government backgrounds but there is no effort to identify clusters of beliefs that would allow a deeper understanding of what is happening.

At the same time anyone who has followed the debates over US public diplomacy over the past decade will recognize that almost all of the arguments that Bogart reports have recurred.  Two explanations come to mind.  Firstly, it’s simply a matter of a failure to conduct (and remember) enough research to resolve these issues. Secondly, there’s actually a deeper source in the way that public diplomacy stands between communications and politics which generates a familiar pattern of disagreement over what PD can do.

Bogart, L. (1976) Premises for Propaganda: The United States Information Agency’s Operating Assumptions in the Cold War. New York: Free Press.

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