In this piece, we will look at what extent the media can be seen to create a sense of a “global community” with shared social and political concerns.
The people you are after are the people you depend on. They cook your meals, they connect your calls, they gather your trash… we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.
Tyler Durden, Fight Club
The concept of globalization is closely linked to the process of circulation of information. While we assess globalisation on economic, political and social grounds, we ought to bear in mind the dramatic importance of the technological changes that, starting mainly in the second half of the 19th century, gave way to (post)modernity – the ‘shrinking’ of space and time (or space-time ‘distanciation’, as Anthony Giddens defines it) that, “combined with the centrality of mediated experience, radically changed what the world actually is… Although everyone lives a local life, phenomenal worlds for the most part are truly global.” Central to these discourses will be the rise of global markets and the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) – the ‘mediators’ – in shaping, as we will argue, the audiences’ perception of the world.
On the basis of such premises, in this essay I shall concentrate on only some of the issues related to media globalization and the world audience: the information flow, the technology involved and the audience’s exposure to and reception of such information, and how reliable that is. I will briefly be looking at Fergal Keane’s ‘examination’ of the condition of journalistic practice today as a starting point for my exploration of the arguments on the news media as agenda-setters, with special reference to the Internet as a new form of public sphere via which concerns and issues can be shared on a global scale. To this regard, I will then be looking at the global authority of the international news agencies, with particular attention to Reuters. What are the logistics of their production? Who do they cater for and what does that mean for the ‘global’ audience? I will then look at the Middle East Report as a way of assessing the work of some theorists of globalization, by juxtaposing it to a non-mainstream US publication, exploring the extent to which the media can be seen to create a sense of ‘global community’ with shared social and political concerns or not.
Let us take Marshall McLuhan’s often quoted statement on the global village as a starting point. “Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.” I agree with James Curran when he assesses McLuhan’s view in saying that “what does seem clear is that the global public sphere is best understood not as a single global space of democratic exchange – what Marshall McLuhan (1964) memorably called a ‘global village’ – but as a series of interlocking public spaces.”. This is something we ought to bear in mind, that it is becoming more and more clear that we cannot talk about a single, ‘global’ public sphere, rather of a multiple one, constituted of interconnecting ‘localities’ – not only in geographical sense – constructed and represented through televisual images.
Thus, ‘Global Village or ‘Global Image’, as the title of a recent conference in London questions?
No doubt images, thus television since its start has come affect the way we communicate more than any other medium. As Michael Gurevitch suggests, “The enhancement of the role of television inheres primarily in its emergence, in the era of instant global communication, as an active participant in the events it purportedly ‘covers’. Television… has clearly become an integral part or the reality it reports.” This is an important aspect, in that it highlights the active role of the media in creating ‘reality’, thus, we argue, creating social concerns in society.
For me one of the most powerful images ever that did create a concern in (or maybe simply stimulated it, a general concern being already there?) is that of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1988. Only recently I have started asking myself a question: in such occasion, did the ‘live’ TV broadcast help to create a shared concern on a global scale about certain conditions in China? Was it the student or the cameras to stop that tank? We will come back later for the answer.
The US is the prime producer of ‘images’ that are then sold around the world, in turn, as we shall see briefly, often ‘localised’. These, it is argued, are shared images of a selected part of the world, that of the ‘worthy victims’, as Herman Chomsky would say, from a ‘First World’ (and I will be using these words aware of the inaccuracies they carry) perspective. These images are produced by an oligopoly of American corporate media corporate conglomerates vertically integrated. American culture (or at least ‘First World’ culture) becomes a global one, with a lot of voices left unspoken – practically the vast majority of the world population. In short, ‘The Media Are American’, as Jeremy Tunstall’s book title reads.
In order to understand how the circulation of these images and words became possible on a global scale and what its influence on the audience’s life would be, we need to introduce the concept of the ‘free-flow of information’. Edward Herman and Robert McChesney argue that “The post-World War II US drive for open markets in communication was carried out in a campaign for what was called the ‘free-flow of information’. This meant the freedom of advertisers, sellers of communication hardware, publishers, motion picture producers, broadcasters, and telecommunications firms to do business abroad without constraint.” They also argue that a lot of the policies on the flows of information in Europe and the US are made simply to give such institutions the ability to sell more and with less constraints to the rest of the world. The media are thus seen as reiterating notions of capitalism and consumerism through advertising and branding that create a set of values they want to be shared globally. This is the very nature of capitalism, the system in which the media in Western societies – like all the rest – operate. This system “functions by giving priority to the ceaseless accumulation of capital, and this is optimised by the creation of a geographically very wide division of labour, today a division of labour that is worldwide. A division of labour requires flows – flows of commodities, flows of capital, flows of labour; not unlimited or unrestricted flows, but significant ones.” Hence the importance of going ‘global’. And we see it from the ads – HSBC ‘The world’s local bank’: clear what they are aiming at – yes it’s globalisation, yes we are a transnational corporate business, yet we want to keep your national identity intact. Same thing with Sony’s “Think Globally, Act Local”.
But what does this inevitably and structurally imply?
BBC shamelessly self-celebrating foreign correspondent Fergal Keane at the 1997 Huw Wheldon Lecture said that “Today the danger is not from ideological myopia. It comes as a result of the great opportunities being opened up by globalization and technology. Millions of homes worldwide are now capable of receiving cable or satellite transmissions. The international broadcaster now has numerous governments to deal with. Not all of them are democrats, not all of them understand the concept of the free flow of information.” In a speech that sounds more like propaganda than anything else, Keane feels he needs to embark on a crusade in order to promote and guard the ‘free-flow’ against the alleged loss of ethical judgement and serious, truthful reporting. Such reporting would, he argues, mean that all citizens of the world would not be discriminated and would be given a fair chance to obtain fair information, from a true ‘world’ perspective.
In the context of our discussion of audience exposure to ‘free flow of information’, we cannot but take into consideration the potential of the Internet. When it comes to Keane’s view on the potential of the Internet , I cannot but feel that all he is worried about is the compromising of the journalists’ lobby. Keane has fears that I find mostly unfounded. As he says, “I am worried about the potential of the Internet to devalue the role of the reporter. It seems to me that the Net, with its proliferation of conspiracy theories on almost every issue, represents as much of a challenge to journalism integrity as it does an opportunity. […] What a pity if technology, far from pushing us into another age of Enlightenment, were to return us to the rumour ridden gloom of the middle ages.”. In contrast, theorists like Rheingold are optimistic about the role of the WWW as a potential (post)modern public sphere, while still being aware of the risk that the ‘big boys’ of corporate businesses will try to “seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us.” On the other hand, theorists like Robins and Curran are sceptical, fearful that the virtual reality will leave too many voices unspoken. Naomi Klein in No Logo has confidence in the role of the WWW to help activists to organise well-grounded and informed campaigns that will sensitise a wide audience on issues that otherwise the mainstream media, because of conflicts of interest, will left untold, like in the case of environmental issues or anti-globalisation movements. I see here a great potential of the new media to empower the (computer literate) audience with the means to improve their knowledge on social important issue. Yet, we ought to be careful not to take it for granted – before we actually involve in, say, environmental issues, we ought to be constantly involved in keeping these information platforms free of profit-driven influences.
Having said this, let us now move on to look at what happens to the ethics and practices of journalistic production and audience’s reception when journalism goes ‘global’ via the work of international news agencies.
Reuters is, along with US Associated Press, to be one of the major news agencies that distribute their footage to media firms worldwide (the two being, as Jeremy Tunstall calls it, a ‘duopoly’). Owned by Reuters only from 1992 – previously in partnership with the BBC and the American network NBC- Reuters has a law that prohibits ownership of 30% or more of the company by any one interest, group or faction. Yet does this mean Reuters is free from public or private influences?
Reuters plays a chief role in shaping the way we perceive the world, in being one of the first ‘selectors’ of what is newsworthy. Their news stories – whose sales count for only 2% of the agency’s profits – are perceived as ‘objective’ and non-partisan, and their writers are very careful in using the appropriate speech in their ‘dope stories’, whose “style avoids potentially controversial terminology and adheres to a ‘minimalist’ language. The imperative to be non-judgemental extends even in extreme cases.” Yet, is this really the case? As Gurevitch argues, “ironically, ‘objectivity’ entails greater ease of manipulating the raw materials for different story-telling purposes. Indeed, it is easy to see how the ‘raw’ footage supplied by the agencies may be used for a variety of editorial purposes by television news editors around the world.” Newsworthiness is judged on the basis of what might be of interest to their clients – who are major Western media corporations, national media and power elites. Reuters is a profit-making business, and logic would suggest that it will refrain from going against their clients’ agendas, which would directly manifest in a loss of profit. Also, Reuters (like Associated Press) has its headquarters in London. And the circle is starting to close. Oliver Boyd-Barret makes the point clear: “The most problematic bias in agency news may be less geopolitical and more to do with such factors as narrowness of topic range (mainly international and major national economics, politics, military affairs, international and major internal conflict, sport); concentration on elites; prominence of official sources; and application of conventional Western news criteria (e.g. favouring conflict over stability, event rather than process).”
From an audience analysis point of view, I contend with Barret that yes, we need to study how audiences take meaning from those products, but no matter how many different meanings they may take, it does not eliminate concern about whose voices, representations or stories make it to mainstream media and whose do not. Media conglomerates may no longer be exclusively American; boards of directors may include Japanese, Dutch, or Brazilians. This does not make them one iota more answerable, democratic, responsible, imaginative, or less recklessly preoccupied with personal and institutional profit.” What seems to be happening is that when these agencies go ‘global’, they seem to mainly strengthen Western conceptions and values by exploiting the notion of globalization and the positive creation of a ‘global identity. “Study of news agencies confirms that globalization is Westernisation. Agencies themselves inflected globalization as Westernisation when taking Western-interests-as-norm… and promoted western values of news, business and politics.” International news agencies are therefore agenda-setters (see also Paterson (1996), Shaw (1994), Blumler (1989) et al.)
To take up on what said earlier about the tactics of companies like HSBC and Sony, we should not forget that more and more localisation is becoming apparent result of complex patterns of globalization and does not necessarily mean independence from transnational institutions: “New global culture is not the product of an equal contribution of all who are party to it or exposed to it and is equal only in as much as the parties have equal chances to take whatever meanings they want from it (if we want to assume that users have equal access to texts, that they are equally skilled in making such meanings, or that they have been taught, through the structure of such discourse itself, how to make and take meanings). Global culture is not the product of equal choice.”
If we look at the very economics of such processes of news production, something important to point out is that producing news footage has very high costs. Therefore, the US for example, will buy some of that footage in order to save on production costs while still producing some of its own. On the contrary, poorer countries, like African countries, will tend to mainly use the footage of the international news agencies, due to the little budgets and technology available to them. This means that in those countries the influences of the West might result in even harsher local/ global dichotomies and patterns of dependency.
I would now like to give two examples of how public and private institutions work in the process of making the world audience have coerced shared concerns, rather than ‘spontaneous’ shared concerns, under the influence of their governments, in a situation where obviously both parties have a conflict of interests. In a post 9/11 Reuters’ press release, we read (extract):
Washington (Reuters) – The architects of the government’s post September 11 propaganda may very well want their MTV on the frontlines in the Arab world, Variety reports.
Rushing to shift perceptions of the US in the Islamic world, Washington and Hollywood are now brainstorming about how the entertainment business might help convey a wider –and more positive- range of perceptions about America. And no demo is more crucial to the future of Islamic Western relations than the 15-30 age group. That’s where MTV comes in.
[…] What such efforts on the part of MTV and other US outlets abroad will cost is still anyone’s guess. But signs are that, spurred by Washington, money will be spent.
The release then goes on to discussing how MTV – available in the Middle East via the Showtime platform – might enhance ‘discussion’ (so it is called in the document) between the two parties. This looks to me like shift of focus from the real point of the issue, which is that America is trying to soften the very harsh perceptions the Middle East has via systematic propaganda through the media. In fact, what kind of ‘shared’ discussion or public sphere about shared concerns can be created when it is mainly one view that is portrayed? It is not surprising, maybe to some extent actually terrifying, that following such release – which obviously did not make the news, and this should really make us think – on February 15, 2002, MTV broadcasted the ‘Colin Powell Forum’. “’Young people have long been one of my top priorities, and never more so than now,’ Colin Powell has stated.”
Young people in general? Or maybe young American people? Or neither? The rhetoric – especially from a character like Powell, a celebrator of the American military-industrial complex, just cannot go unnoticed.
A second example comes from another Reuters release on CNN staffers getting instruction to blame the Taliban (extract):
In an effort to balance reports of significant civilian casualties in Afghanistan, CNN began emphasising to viewers on Wednesday (31 October) that the Taliban leadership is to blame for the situation. An internal memo from the network’s standards and practices department was issued to all CNN staffers on Tuesday suggesting “we must remain careful not to focus excessively on the casualties and hardships in Afghanistan that will inevitably be a part of this war, or to forget that it is the Taliban leadership that is responsible for the situation in Afghanistan in now in.”
[…] Standards and practices suggested that while reporters should put the commentary in their own words, they might want to note that “these US military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US.”
[…] TV media have been on the frontlines in the propaganda wars, with the Bush administration asking news executives to think twice before airing Taliban or Al Qaida statements.
It seems that the recent The Economist issue title ‘The Propaganda War’ was not at all inappropriate… We clearly learnt from Karl Popper that humans are exceptionally prone to suggestions, and the logistics of the market tell us that it will be the ‘big boys’ who will try to force their issues into our lives trying to make them look like shared concerns, in the (often usurped) name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Not only that, but even when we have constitutions that protect our freedom of speech, people who hint to other concerns will be inevitably castigated, like in the case of Susan Sontag, whose speech post-9/11 encountered harsh criticism, when she said that: “Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defence. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” She will be called a ‘traitor’.
This is once more the reiteration, as Wallerstein suggests, of the underlying flawed Western discourses of ‘civilized’ against ‘uncivilized’, upon which acts of war, in this case, are motivated and publicised.
In relation to these debates, the recent developments of the ‘War Against Terror’ and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I now want to move on to consider the position Middle East Report (MER) and its sister activity The Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) as a case study.
I agree with Curran when he says that ‘corporate synergies’ create institutionalised ‘patterns of dependency’ of the ‘Second’ and ‘Third World’ from the West, rather than shared social and political concerns. We have so far seen how “the media are seen as part of the institutional apparatus that creates such dependencies by providing Western produced packages of information and entertainment that carry and transmit Western cultural values. Development through media contents and policies is part of the process of cultural hegemony.” This MERIP tries to contrast.
Started in 1971, “The original conception of MERIP was to provide information and analysis of the Middle East that would be picked up by the existing media. […] MERIP is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Washington, DC. A completely independent organisation, it has no links to any religious, educational or political organisation in the US or elsewhere.” Chris Toensing, Editor and Director of the publication specifies that their intent is, as stated in their website, to “provide news and perspective about the Middle East not available from mainstream sources.” Their income comes from “small US based foundations interested in international peace and security and some wealthy individuals. Most of MERIP’s donations come from readers and subscribers and are very small.” Their target is the US general public and the US media; their market “the world”, as Toensing specifies. When I asked him about his politics and those of the publication, he said with no hesitation: “I’m a socialist and Marxist but don’t ask me to define what that means. The magazine has a left perspective ranging from liberal to socialist. My ethics? Devoutly secular humanist.”
MERIP also features a website where they make available some of the articles for each of their quarterly issue, and they also have an email service to which subscribers can receive commentaries and news stories. Writing for the MER are intellectuals, university professors and journalists, both American and Middle-Eastern. As for the readership, “The magazine serves as a resource for academic specialists but is also accessible to the general public.” As Toensing says, the circulation in the Middle East is limited, and this is due to the fact that “people don’t know about it – we are small perennially cash poor and can’t afford to do much promotion and advertising, plus in the Middle East the structures for a proper circulation are lacking”.
When I asked him what he thought of US mainstream media, he replied that “mainstream US media exhibit schizophrenia. The factual reporting is most often quite good. But even more often the stories are framed in a way that reveals establishmentarian editorial prejudices. With regard to foreign stories that usually means the stories reflect the perspective of the US government. Most often that perspective is treated as natural and not even identified – let alone subjected to critical analyses. Editorial pages however are much less balanced. On most political and social issues mainstream editorial pages reflect an ideological spectrum running from the centre to the far right. Even moderate left leaning voices are rare. The media have a huge role to play in shaping public opinion on matters of social and political concern. Most people derive their understanding of what is natural and what is achievable in politics from the debate in the media, especially TV. Unfortunately the US media – because they not open to vigorous ideological debate – tend to turn American off to politics, convincing them that politics is nothing but a circus – like elections every four years in which nobody has a real interest except the politicians and their financial backers. That is true but only part of the truth. The republicans today for instance are enacting an ideological agenda that is inimical to the belief systems of the majority in this country, particularly on questions of civil liberties, the environment, abortion, gun control, but also on other issues.” Toensing’s view is clear: it is the agenda of the politicians in power that establishes, as we have also seen from the example of the two press releases, what the ‘global’ social and political concerns ought to be.
In the editorial for the Spring 2002 issue of the MER, Toensing gives a general overview of ‘War Without Borders’, the theme of the issue. He critically looks at the developments in the war in Afghanistan, and highlights ‘missteps’ on the side of the US government that I have not seen highlighted anywhere else in the US press, while also pointing out the precarious and not promising new governmental situation of Afghanistan. He is not afraid to speak up on institutions like the “Office of Strategic Influence – designed to feed disinformation to the foreign press”.
As the articles in this issue dispute, the latest consolidation of the military-industrial complex has done little or nothing to enhance the security of people in the Middle East and Central Asia. […] With Northern Alliance fighters in control of the capital and major cities, it was impossible not to include Abdul Rashid Dostum and other commanders accused of war crimes as ministers in Hamid Karzai’s interim government. The resulting return of warlord politics to Afghanistan promises anything but stability.”
Has even recent history been forgotten? This should be a shared concern, and even though the media do pick up on it at times, the US government and ‘friends’ have never made clear, in this case, that the future of Afghanistan does not look too bright.
Towards a conclusion of this essay, let us now go back to the question we posed when talking about the Tiananmen Square events and the role of the media. Gurevitch helps us find an answer. “By transmitting these events ‘live’, and enabling instant global exposure, they transformed the city squares and other sites in which these events took place into a global stage. It is probably no exaggeration to say that ‘the whole world is watching’.” The power of that brave action of the student in front of the monstrous tanks was therefore greatly amplified by the presence of the TV cameras, which in such context played the role of ‘virtual’ mediators, rendering that one action and action we all, more or less, took part in.
The other important point is that, as we have shown, a considerable amount of the world population remains left out; “there remains significant global inequality of access to print, to radio and to television. […] Illiteracy is increasingly recognised as the biggest barrier to development, with a strongly skewed gender pattern. […] The inequality in access to telephony is shocking, while provision of such services are of far more direct social utility than developments in broadcasting.” Once more, I feel the emphasis is on the wrong aspects. It is of no or little utility, a part from increasing the profit of transnational corporations, to give ‘the best of Western entertainment’ (as the narrator of Showtime – a Viacom company – says in the advertisements for the Middle-Eastern channel says) if those peoples cannot read or write. These are the problems to tackle even before we think of ‘media education’. Until then, I believe we cannot talk about a ‘global community’ with shared social and political concerns. Once these aspects are given the true weight in discourses of globalization, integration will slowly be achieved; integration: a must in order to have globally shared concerns.
As Martin Shaw suggests, globalization is actually sharpening existing differences and the spread of nationalisms. “The experience of society in complex multinational states has been that national, ethnic and other divisions remain powerful; it seems unconceivable that these will be less important on the much larger scale of global society, however much global institutions develop. The reverse is more likely to be true. Global social integration seems likely, therefore, to remain extremely problematic.” Yet, we can certainly see a trend happening, which shows the ‘dialectical’ character of globalisation, as Giddens calls it. Shaw acknowledges these dialectics of the local and the global, and says that “people are coming to see their lives in terms of common expectations, values and goals. These cultural norms include ideas of standard living, lifestyle, entitlements to welfare, citizenship rights, democracy, ethnic and linguistic rights, nationhood, gender equality, environment equality, etc. Many of them have originated in the West but they are increasingly, despite huge differences in their meanings in different social contexts, parts of the ways of life and political discourse across the world. In this sense, we can talk of the emergence of a global culture, and specifically of global political culture.”
Summing up, we have seen how the global media theoretically can help create shared social and political concerns, but also how the problem lies in the nature of those concerns, in their mainly Western perspective, in the actual goals of the ‘powerful’, which, as Toensing among many would argue, results in ‘monological’ media discourses. The case of the Middle East is a clear example, as many would argue, of how the media tend to take one side instead of the other, or actually, instead on neither. Practically, a vast part of the global population is not included, because of poverty or illiteracy, in this alleged ‘globality’ anyway.
Keane seems to be a little naïve in saying that reporters, especially from the BBC, take “an individual pride in their journalism that soars far above considerations of money or prestige.” There are certainly exceptions, yet I agree with Curran when he says that the reporter is a powerful mediator of our cultural and social experiences, and he reports inevitably from his own perspective; he is the encoder, and as we have seen a number of countries do not have the full means yet to decode independently, let alone discussions of ‘audience empowerment’ – and this is something that is also valid in the ‘West’ though. “It should, of course, be noted that the role played by the media in the construction of world opinion is an extension, onto a global scale, of the similar role they play in their own societies. However, whereas public opinion in a given society is typically tapped through surveys and polls (thus being a construct of the pollsters’ work) global public opinion is, of course, wholly a media construction. In the absence of global polls or other similar ‘hard’ evidence, global public opinion is inevitably merely what the media say it is.”
When deep space exploitation ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.
– Narrator, Fight Club
• Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi, The Global and Local in International Communications, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996)
• Edward Herman & Robert McChesney, The Global Media (London: Cassell, 1997)
• Fergal Keane at the 1997 Huw Wheldon Lecture, in The Journal of the Royal Television Society, October 1997
• Immanuel Wallerstein, The National and the Universal: Can There Be Such a Thing as World Culture?, in Anthony King, Culture, Globalization and the World System (London: Macmillan, 1991)
• James Curran Rethenking Media and Democracy, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 2000)
• Jeremy Tunstall, World News Duopoly in Howard Tumber, News: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
• John Tomlinson, A Phenomenology of Globalization? Giddens on Global Modernity, in the European Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, Number 2, June 1994
• Martin Shaw, The Theoretical Challenge of Global Society, in Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi et al, Media in Global Context: A Reader (London: Arnold, 1997)
• McLuhan, M. (1967) The Medium is the Message. 2001, Gingko Press, California
• Michael Gurevitch, The Globalization of Electronic Journalism, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996)
• Naomi Klein, No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000)
• Oliver Boyd-Barret, Global News Wholesalers as Agents of Globalization, in Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi et al, Media in Global Context: A Reader (London: Arnold, 1997)
• Rheingold, H. (1994) The Virtual Community. London, Minerva
• Middle East Report, Spring 2002
• The Times, Friday February 15, 2002
This essay also features extracts from the phone interview I held with Chris Toensing, Editor and Director of the MER, on 19 March 2002.