Brave New Media World (9/00)

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 and dependent."

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 international standards."

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.