Brave New Media World
by Greg Guma
Toward Freedom magazine, September / October
Possibly the greatest testament to the media's power over
mass consciousness is its ability to rewrite and even erase history.
As the world plunges headlong into what's been labeled the Information
Age, for example, Western-dominated mass media-with the sometimes
unwitting assistance of new Internet-based enterprises-have so
far convinced most of their avid consumers that we're dealing
with unique issues and a revolutionary new environment that makes
old debates about mass communication irrelevant. In reality, it's
just a case of media-induced amnesia.
Concern about press responsibility and information policy
actually dates back to the 1890s, particularly after the impact
of media propaganda was dramatically demonstrated during the Spanish-American
War. In 1922, the president of General Electric warned Europe
about the downside of radio, urging nations to stop hurling insults
at each other "in furious language." Five years later,
the League of Nations passed a resolution opposing "obviously
inaccurate, highly exaggerated, or deliberately distorted"
news, urging the press not to undermine international peace. By
the early 30s, an International Federation of Journalists had
established a tribunal to deal with information that promoted
hate and violence.
From the start, however, the US opposed or remained aloof
from proposals designed to impose sanctions or promote balance,
even though its leaders recognized the danger of a European news
cartel and, later, the power of fascist and Nazi propaganda. The
US stand, then as now, was that only private-sector ownership
could ensure the so-called "free marketplace of ideas."
The fact that commercially-based media are subject to abuses and
distortions was ruled irrelevant, while arguments for a "new
international information and communication order," one that
would be democratic, support economic development, enhance the
exchange of ideas, share knowledge among all the world's people,
and improve the quality of life, was called demagoguery, the leading
edge of a plan to impose a global socialist state.
In the early 80s, this battle came to a head in the US effort
to discredit the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), established in 1945 to promote the worldwide exchange
of thought and ideas in hopes of promoting peace and prosperity.
Although never completely comfortable with this agenda, the US
went along until the late 70s, when calls for a New International
Information Order (NIIO) directly challenged the West s "cultural
imperialism." Information flows shouldn't be one-directional,
all nations should have equal access to information and international
transmission channels, the power of existing transnational media
monopolies should be reduced, and additional media voices should
be heard-these were some of the NIIO's lofty goals.
Not surprisingly, the response from the US government and
corporate media was negative and savage, using all the power at
their disposal to derail this challenge to the "free marketplace"
gospel. Once Ronald Reagan became president, the Heritage Foundation,
a conservative think tank that developed many of Reagan's policies,
led the charge. Now, the goal was not only to squelch any talk
about media reform, but also to discredit UNESCO and the entire
UN system. Mainstream media pitched in, casting the issue as a
power play by Third World dictators to destroy the "free
press"-a widely accepted euphemism for media in private hands,
largely financed by advertising, and not subject to government
controls or demands for social responsibility.
At the same time, they played the technology card. In response
to complaints about information flow imbalances, cultural dependence,
unequal facilities, and distorted coverage, government and business
leaders asserted that high tech would eliminate age-old gaps and
even enable under-developed countries to "leapfrog"
into a post-industrial future. The argument was persuasive, but
the record since then shows that the main beneficiaries have been
corporations and the US military-intelligence-industrial complex.
The communications revolution has dramatically enhanced the mobility
of capital, while helping the military to impose a global surveillance
regime that would shock George Orwell.
The attack on UNESCO climaxed with the US withdrawal in 1985.
After that, hopes for a "new world information and communication
order" evaporated. Some critics suggest that the approach
was doomed anyway, since it was promoted by political and intellectual
elites, and focused on the role of states rather than individuals
and civil society. In short, they argue that such a campaign for
"democratization from above" would empower only governments,
and likely produce new forms of censorship and control.
Today, the information superhighway, like other media, is
mainly driven by the market, which defines what services consumers
get and how much they'll pay. Those lacking sufficient bucks-a
group that includes the vast majority of the world's population
are simply shut out. The companies investing in this highway want
control of access to consumers to recoup their investments. The
Internet-at this point still largely a public meeting place where
people exchange information, search databases, play games, and
chat -has clearly attracted the attention of the international
business community. Once its effectiveness as a vehicle for advertising
and sales is further refined, this public, relatively un-regulated,
un-censored, pluralistic network may become essentially a global
electronic shopping mall.
A century after the power of global communications was first
acknowledged, we're still being fed the same old line: The market
best protects the free exchange of information, and is certainly
preferable to any form of state or global intervention. There
is another point of view, though not one our corporate gatekeepers
have deigned to mention. It's embodied in the People's Communication
Charter (PCC), a global initiative developed by Third World Network
in Malaysia, the Center for Communication & Human Rights in
Amsterdam, the US-based Cultural Environment Movement, and the
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters.
The PCC articulates essential rights and responsibilities
that ordinary people should have in relation to their cultural
environment. "All people are entitled to participate in communication,
and in making decisions about communication within and between
societies," it asserts. "The majority of the world's
peoples lack minimal technological resources for survival and
communication. Over half of them have not yet made a single telephone
call. Commercialization of media and concentration of media ownership
erode the public sphere and fail to provide for cultural and information
needs, including the plurality of opinions and the diversity of
cultural expressions and languages necessary for democracy. Massive
and pervasive media violence polarizes societies, exacerbates
conflict, and cultivates fear and mistrust, making people vulnerable
In 18 articles, the charter outlines a set of principles that
provide the basis for a campaign to transform global communications.
Building on existing treaties and the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, it calls for broad rights to access and literacy,
international protection of journalists, and the right of all
people to "reply and to demand penalties for damage from
media misinformation." It addresses the issues of cultural
identity, language diversity, and protecting children from harmful
media products. In addition, it focuses on privacy rights, equitable
use of cyberspace, protection of consumers from promotion disguised
as news or entertainment, and accountability through self-regulatory
bodies, based on the standards outlined in the charter.
Finally, reflecting its focus on "democracy from below,"
the PCC also deals with the vital question of independence. The
right to participate in and benefit from self-reliant communication
structures, it explains, "requires international assistance
to the development of independent media; training programs for
professional media workers; the establishment of independent,
representative associations, syndicates or trade unions of journalists
and associations of editors and publishers; and the adoption of
At this point, corporate media's response has been to ignore
that there's anything to discuss, aside from some self-indulgent
hand wringing about whether the press focuses too much on polls
and conflicts and not enough on content. Of course, we know what
they're really focused on-ratings-which, in the end, means money.
Still, the charter's agenda does go straight to the heart of what
worries most people about our brave new media world. The questions
are whether, this time, enough people will see through the "free
marketplace" spin-and whether civil society will seize the
initiative before it's too late.