Whose Media? Whose New World Order?

By Vincent Mosco | 1991-05-01 12:00:00

The more remarkable outcomes of the Gulf war are the call for a New World Order and the rebirth of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. These developments are closely tied because SDI provides the military base for the U.S. version of a New Order. Since the 1950s developing nations

formally organized in the Non-aligned Movement, forcefully pressed for New World Communication and Information Order, an integral part of a New International Economic Order. These New Orders were to provide for more equality and democracy in the production and distribution of the world's resources, including mass media and information.

The call for a new order in communication culminated in 1979 with publication of the McBride Commission Report, which identified problems and proposed remedies. The Commission, with representation from all regions of the world (including from Canada, Marshall McLuhan), described how media Systems in the developed world dominated flows of news and entertainment worldwide and called for a small start to address the problem by strengthening the mass media in the developing world.

The U.S. response was to wage political warfare against this New Order. The U.S. Government and most major private media in the industrialized world attacked the report by distorting its recommendations (a major focus was a non-existent proposal to licence journalists) and demanded the total rejection of its call for equity, balance, and democracy because any policies based on these principles would threaten the free marketplace of ideas. Supporters of the document responded by noting, among other things, that the overwhelming bias and distortion in the media's own coverage of the Commission showed how the world's media was under the control of a few dominant monopolies who were increasingly able to choke off the flow of ideas that challenged their power. The U.S. and Great Britain gave the final thumbs down to reform by withdrawing from UNESCO, thereby leaving the organization politically battered and with a much reduced budget. By the tenth anniversary of the Commission report, the New York Times could safely declare that even the head of UNESCO was committed to ending what little remained of the New World Information and Communication Order, partly in order to coax back the U.S. and U.K.

Why was the U.S. and some of its allies so overwhelmingly opposed to this New Order? The principal reason is that global mass media, from big Hollywood film companies to NBC and the New York Times, are both big business and the major means to cement a dominant Western view of the world. Any call for a New Order based on fairness, balance, equity and democracy, how-ever slight, would threaten the existing mass media order. Such a threat is potentially more significant than the nationalization of a copper mine or a steel mill because the mass media produce ideology as well as a return on investment. And just as significantly, the U.S. communication order is bound up with its global military hegemony.

The U.S. understood this very well because it had once been subjected to the domination of a world media order and spent much of the first half of this century overcoming it. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, international communication, largely telegraph and cable-based press wire service, were dominated by a cartel of European countries, principally the British Reuters, French Havas, and German Wolff.

In language reminiscent of that used by many developing nations of today, the U.S., principally through the State department and the Associated Press wire service, protested bitterly about European domination of the world's news and about how the U.S.'s image in the world was being filtered through European media. A.P. was especially upset that it could not strike deals with newspapers because the big European companies threatened retaliation.

The U.S. fought the European order on numerous fronts starting with what the government called its "chosen instrument," the Radio Corporation of America, the parent of NBC. The government established RCA by permitting major companies like General Electric, AT&T, Westinghouse, and United Fruit to pool their electronic patents and capital, giving the U.S. one

big company to beat the Europeans by establishing global dominance in radio-based communication. Recognizing the strategic significance of this decision, the U.S. government named a military representative to the RCA board and consistently made the company one of its top defense contractors. Today, as a subsidiary of General Electric, RCA is a major participant in the defence system.

In the l960s, when communications satellite technology was ready for use, the U.S. established another "chosen instrument" to lead the world. The U.S. set up the Communications Satellite Corporation and the global Intelsat network, comprising non-communist nations wishing to participate in international satellite communication. The U.S. managed the system for the world with an executive team filled with military and retired military officials (one analyst called it an "old soldiers home") who recognized the strategic significance of dominating the world communication order.

The developing nations' call for their own New Order was therefore seen as a threat to U.S. strategic economic interests (the profits of global media companies), ideological interests (Western ideas like consumerism, individualism, private enterprise) and military interests (the links between big electronics firms and the war machine). The U.S. is now prepared to dispose of that threat once and for all by replacing the New Order that the developing world so desperately needs with its own version of a New Order supported by the same form of military-backed enterprise that established U.S. domination in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Star Wars program is central to the New Order. With its Patriot missiles and other "smart" weaponry the U.S. revived the view that SDI could become a reality. Critics have been quick to point out that a few successful attacks on Scud missiles is hardly a test of global defense against thousands of incoming ICBMs. The critics are absolutely right but, however necessary and well meaning, they miss the point. SDI is not about a worldwide defense against nuclear weapons. It is not a

global umbrella. As such, SDI cannot and will not work. Rather, SDI is about other matters which are more central to Bush's New World Order and in these respects, SDI is already working.

First, SDI is working as an economic program. It is a massive government investment of capital in U.S. multinational businesses. It represents the single largest computer communication research and development pro-gram in history. It provides enormous financial benefits to companies like General Motors, which owns Hughes Aerospace and major software firms and General Electric, the parent of RCA and NBC. Despite the rhetoric of laissez-faire, SDI is a program of government assistance to multinational business.

Second, SDI is working politically. One of the tricky problems for national government in an era of multinational business is ensuring that those businesses stay "on side," that they support national government policies as well as their own bottom line. The carrot of big research and development conflicts is a major incentive to companies that take globalization too seriously. Or as one Pentagon official put it when asked about IBM's apparent unwillingness to carry out research in areas that the Pentagon deems important: "Either IBM will decide that it will be good to do research in this field and to have a capability in it for defense in the 1990s or it will not. If it does not, there will be many other who will ... if lBM does not see that, then in my opinion their market share will decline."

Third. SDI is working as a system of beliefs, as an ideology that enshrines defense against the horrors of war, as the principal driving force behind military strategy. According to this view, the Patriot and the accompanying Nintendo battlefield are symbols of a military committed to the clean, auto-mated, morally justifiable goal of knocking offensive weapons out of the skies. The overwhelming popular sup-port for the U.S. "defence" of Kuwait suggest that SDI may well be working in this respect as well.

Finally and most importantly, SDI is working militarily, but not as the high-tech defensive umbrella. SDI works as a loosely coupled set of military systems that enhance the ability to take offensive action against individual nations that are unwilling to accede to the New World Order. SDI is an ideological umbrella for a warfare system based on sophisticated electronics and massive fire power. As the Gulf war demonstrated, here too, it is working.

In essence, Bush's New Order is like many new and improved products in an age of advertising hype. It repackages old ideas about military domination and manifest destiny, only in a much more dangerous and destructive form. Nevertheless, even as Bush presents his New Order, cracks appear in the edifice. Europe and Japan represent formidable challenges. The U.S. economy is stagnating under the weight of neglect, leaving its infrastructure crumbling, and crackpot policies like deregulating the banking system, leaving American taxpayers a bill for between one half and one trillion dollars. The New Order and the renewed commitment to militarization is an attack on America's poor, desperate for public housing, health care, and education. In this respect, the U.S. could learn many les-sons from the principles and proposals in the version of a New Order proposed by the developing world. Its own underdeveloped peoples are calling for nothing less.

Vincent Mosco is a professor of journalism at Carleton University. His most recent book is The Pay-par Society: Computers and Communication in the Information Age (Toronto:

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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