Chapter 9: Media Imperialism — In Our Image

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 9: Media Imperialism — In Our Image

Freedom of speech has also become in practice the freedom of the rich.

--Urho Kekkonen, President of Finland, 1980



In 1980 Anthony Smith, a TV producer for the BBC and a thoughtful analyst of the mass media, wrote a book called The Geopolitics of Information: How Western Culture Dominates the World.1 His book was not alone. During the sixties and seventies more than a dozen works documented the increasing U.S. control over all forms of mass media production -- especially news, broadcasting, advertising, and data flow -- and thus its grip on the production of culture worldwide.

Smith's book is a balanced account, but it is still alarming.

He points out that a kind of inevitability has been built into the West's view of the world, that during this century in particular we have believed it was our duty to bring to the rest of the world our religion, our products, and our way of life. He quotes the famous explorer and journalist H. M. Stanley, who, shortly after "finding" Dr. Livingston in the African Congo a century ago, returned to England to report to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce:

There are 500 millions of people beyond the gateway to the Congo, and the cotton spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them. Birmingham foundries are glowing with the red metal that will presently be made into ironwork for them and the trinkets that shall adorn those dusky bosoms, and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold. 2

A hundred years later this crass commercialism and cultural and religious paternalism embarrasses us. Yet today our newspapers and telecasts successfully obscure the fact that similar approaches to the third world have continued throughout the century following Stanley's remarks and continue still, with even greater viciousness though greater subtlety.

The unleashing of the United States as a major world force began right after the Second World War. Armed with more technology and production power than any other nation in history, America began to exploit the worldwide potential for its goods and services. At the same time, communication was beginning to emerge as a major sector in the U.S. economy. Television quickly developed into the most efficient sales device ever known. The production of news and information became big business, as more and more small town newspapers and even large city independents became part of huge newspaper chains. The computer, developed during the war, became an essential element in the growth of business. And the rocket, another war technology, was put to use launching satellites that could girdle the earth and provide a remarkably inexpensive way of sending information anywhere on the globe.

During this same period, colonized nations throughout the world were beginning to throw off the political domination that the Western nations had exercised during the century since Stanley and Livingston. Scores of countries, particularly in Africa, declared their independence from European nations, which had benefited so richly from their natural resources. And so, during the half-century since the Second World War, two global changes were taking place simultaneously: power was shifting from the European nations to the United States; and the third-world nations were asserting their political independence. What happened next, in terms of world history and the behavior of nations, was virtually inevitable, though morally thoroughly reprehensible: the United States and its business community moved in to exploit the weak and undeveloped third-world nations, which were no longer "protected" by the British, Dutch, French, or Belgians.

The underdeveloped nations caught on quickly. By the 1950s they realized that the old political colonialism was being replaced by a new kind of economic colonialism. In 1956 they organized themselves as the "nonaligned" nations, asserting their independence from both capitalism (the first world) and communism (the second world). This "third world," as the group was called, began to press for a new economic environment that would protect them from being taken over by either the first- or second-world nations.

As they pressed for justice, one forum was the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As the number of third-world nations increased, so did their voting clout in the U.N. and UNESCO. By 1970, at the Sixteenth General Assembly of UNESCO, a "New International Economic Order" was proposed. This concept was based on the idea that the third-world nations could not truly develop until they achieved economic independence from the first and second worlds.

By the 1970s communication also had become a major tool in the first- and second-world nations' attempts to recolonialize the third world. The United States already outstripped all other nations in development of communication technologies, and it was actively using its technological prowess to expand its domination of communication worldwide. The efforts of U.S. businesses, backed where possible by government money and power, were concentrated in four areas.

First, U.S. news dominated the entire world's daily output, and it continues to do so today. The Associated Press puts out some 10 million words overseas daily, serving 108 nations with 559 foreign correspondents and 62 foreign bureaus. United Press International produces some 11 million words and 200 news pictures overseas daily. Together, their output is approximately ten times the output of all the other press agencies - AFP (France), Reuters (United Kingdom), Tass (Soviet Union) and a half dozen others - taken together.3 The resulting imbalance was perceived even by media executives. Roger Tatarian, a former vice president of United Press International, declared in 1978:

There is in fact imbalance in the flow of news, both in content and volume, from the developed to the developing world .... It is true that this reflects the disposition of global military, economic and political power. Agency coverage often tends to seek simplistic solutions or Cold War ramifications in situations that are typically Asian, African or Latin American .... There is an acknowledged tendency among Western media ... to devote the greatest attention to the Third World in times of disaster, crisis and confrontation.4

Second, U.S. television began to dominate the world scene, exporting some 200,000 TV programs a year, or more than twice the number exported by all other nations combined. By 1974 a UNESCO report found that only four countries were exporting TV in any major way: the United States was annually exporting 150,000 hours of TV; the United Kingdom and France, about 20,000 hours each (including all the BBC programs on American public broadcasting); and Germany about 6,000 hours. On the other hand, the three U.S. TV networks were importing between ten and twelve hours per year. In other words, while American TV was importing the equivalent of two broadcast days' worth of programming a year, they were exporting enough to fill the broadcasting schedules of twenty-two TV networks, operating eighteen hours a day for a year! This dominance continues today, although it is being slightly eroded by the emergence of several large multinational media producers outside the United States.

Third, U.S. advertising invaded virtually every nation of the world, bringing with it values and images of indulgence and selfcenteredness. As early as 1965 Professor Harry Skornia was asking about the ethical implications of American advertising and television programming sent into the third world:

Isn't the world we live in today so literally one world that we can no longer be indifferent to poverty, hunger, and misery anywhere on the globe? And what effect on starving people do our programs have -- featuring waste, dissipation, violence and luxury?5

One response to Skornia's question was supplied by sociologist Alan Wells, referring specifically to burgeoning U.S. ads in Latin America in the 1970s:

The effect of this type of programming is to encourage an elite sector to live in North American style without the sacrifices necessary for indigenous development, while the masses are shown -- but cannot enter into -- the modern cosmopolitan world. The content of such programs undoubtedly influences the viewer toward consumerism, without up-grading his productive skills or increasing his willingness to save and sacrifice.6

Fourth, U.S. media domination focused on data flow, including control of the emerging new satellite transmissions. This is the least understood, yet potentially the most important form of cultural imperialism.7 During the past four decades, communication has become increasingly a central component in all industries. Cees Hamelink estimates that 70 percent of the costs of industrial production today are devoted to the processing of information-research, market analysis, advertising, and internal company communications.

Some of the effects of U.S. data systems operating in other nations are almost bizarre. For example, when a Scandinavian city fire department decided to install an information retrieval system to give fire fighters instant read-outs of information about the fire-capabilities of any given address, they chose an American computer data base company because it entered the lowest bid. Now the Swedish fire fighters get the information they need, right down to the fastest route to the fire, instantly - via satellite, from Cleveland, Ohio.

The Failure of a New World Information Order

The third-world nations, recognizing that continuation of media domination made economic domination all the more inevitable, sought to buttress the UNESCO New Economic Order statement with a New International Information Order statement. In 1976 a UNESCO conference called for greater public access and participation in the media, for regional cooperation to develop news within the regions, and for agreement on the principle of a "free and balanced flow" of information. UNESCO appointed an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, under the leadership of Sean MacBride, former foreign minister of Ireland and a recipient of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes.

The commission's report, Many Voices, One World, was presented at the UNESCO Assembly in Belgrade in 1980. Immediately it came under attack from the Western nations, especially the United States. The large communication conglomerates rightly sensed in the report an attack on their unfettered exploitation of third-world markets. After strenuous negotiations at the Belgrade meeting of UNESCO, the sections which were most offensive to the West were removed, including: "the rights of peoples ... to comprehensive and true information," "the right of each nation to inform the world about its affairs," and "the right of each nation to protect its cultural and social identity against false or distorted information which may cause harm." Finally the assembly agreed on a number of guidelines for a new information order, including: the elimination of the imbalances and inequities brought on by media monopolies; a "better balanced dissemination of information and ideas"; freedom of the press and of information; and respect for each people's cultural identity and its right to inform the world about its "interests, aspirations and social and cultural values."8

The response of the U.S. delegation revealed American opposition to the whole idea: "The resolution on the MacBride Report is largely what we had sought .... It calls for widespread dissemination of the Report, for study and reflection, but little concrete action as far as implementation is concerned" (italics supplied).9

Still, the U.S. press reacted to the MacBride Report with rage -- and considerable self-serving bias. A. H. Raskin, former assistant editor of the editorial page of the New York Times, conducted a study of U.S. papers during that period. He found some 448 news articles and 206 editorials dealt with the 1980 UNESCO Assembly. By far the most news stories -- 39 percent -- dealt with the debate over communications. Eighty-eight percent of the editorials were on this topic, and of these, 87 percent were strongly hostile. Twenty-seven newspapers urged U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO if it persisted in such actions. Raskin also reported that not one story coming out of the six-week conference dealt with UNESCO's battle against illiteracy, its development of alternative energy sources, its educational programs for scientists and engineers, its basic research into food production, and scores of other accomplishments during 1980. One might well ask whether the press's shoddy treatment of UNESCO exemplifies the very complaint -- Western bias in the news -- that led to calls for a New Information Order debate in the first place.

The U.S. press did not let up. They saw the UNESCO criticism of excessive concentrations of press control in the hands of a few huge Western monopolies, and the consequent "imbalances and inequalities" in news coverage, as a threat to their forty-year worldwide dominance of media. For months they railed against the so-called proposals "to license journalists," even though Recommendation Number 50 of the MacBride Report specifically states that "the commission does not propose special privileges to protect journalists in the performance of their duties, although journalism is a dangerous profession," and neither the UNESCO Secretariat nor any member state had formally advocated the licensing of journalists. Nevertheless, the press either chose not to understand what the UNESCO debate was really all about or purposefully misled the public about the matter; either way, the U.S. news industry adopted a less than "balanced" approach to the issue in order to protect its own self-interest.

In 1984 the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from UNESCO, calling the organization inefficient and unable to reflect the views of the larger nations. Great Britain was the only other nation that joined the U.S. in its protest. While some charges of inefficiency probably had merit, Colleen Roach, a former U.S. employee of UNESCO, wrote that the main argument used by U.S. officials to attack UNESCO was "its supposed intent of promoting government-controlled media."l0 The withdrawal of U.S. funds was nearly catastrophic to UNESCO; to placate the U.S., the UNESCO chief executive officer was replaced and its policies underwent a major shift. The U.S. had effectively destroyed the third world's challenge to worldwide media domination by U.S. media corporations.

To see what happens when the United States is able to bring so much of the world's culture into conformity with its own image, let us take a look at two case histories: the effects of U.S. media in the Caribbean and the recent American media campaign to sell cigarettes to the world.

Media Effects: The Caribbean

When Columbus discovered America--or to be more accurate, when the Arawak Indians on what we now call San Salvador discovered Columbus on their beach--a whole new world opened up to the Europeans (and, unfortunately, to these newly-named "Indians" as well!). The string of beautiful islands reaching from the north coast of South America to the "West Indies" (so named by Columbus in a miscalculation of some 12,000 miles) was soon colonized. Landowners from almost every Western European nation established plantations, imported slaves from Africa, and intermarried with the Indians.

When other parts of the third world were declaring their independence in the 1950s, most Caribbean nations joined in. But when first-world political domination ended, economic domination continued and even increased. Accompanying this new colonialism was domination over the access to news, information, and entertainment. Today, according to Allen Kirton of the Caribbean Council of Churches, "cultural penetration is the name of the game."

When a group of journalists and mission executives visited the tiny island of St. Lucia in 1988, Rickey Singh, a Caribbean journalist who edited the Caribbean Council of Churches' newspaper Caribbean Contact, greeted them with the words, "Welcome to the media-penetrated region in the world." In the next few days, the group began to understand how media penetration works.

In the first place, all of the islands are small and pitifully poor. They cannot possibly afford to support quality television and radio productions. So some island governments simply set up satellite dishes to receive U.S.-based programs designed to feed U.S. and Canadian cable systems, and then they rebroadcast these pirated programs over a local TV channel. In many cases governments actually charge citizens a fee for the use of TV sets to receive the pirated American TV. Of course, along with the programs come news, commercials, and the North American weather. Consequently, the languages and customs and values of the Caribbean people are today being replaced with the language, customs, and values of commercial America. Alan Kirton described viewing "Life Styles of the Rich and Famous," a Popeye cartoon, "The Price Is Right," "The A-Team," "Miss Marple," "Miami Vice," "Crazy Like a Fox," the Jimmy Swaggart ministry, and a movie, "Charlie Grant's War," in a small Caribbean community and commented: "We have a Cadillac mentality in a bicycle economy." Testifying to the effects of such programs on the people of the tiny island of Montserrat, with a population of 12,000, and Saba, with only 1,000, he asked, "Where is my community in all that?" and he challenged North Americans to "consider the impact on these people!"

One example of what happens when communications come from outside the culture is the situation in Grenada. Marlene Cuthbart, a Canadian expert in communication studies and a longtime resident in the Caribbean, points out that Grenada, with a population of about 110,000, had a local TV station for ten years prior to the U.S. invasion. Following the invasion, in 1986, the American government offered to help bring "Discovery TV," a U.S. satellite-fed system, to Grenada "to aid in development." Grenada could not easily refuse the offer. The system that arrived was privately owned by a Boston-based corporation. Soon the new manager, an American who persisted in wearing his cowboy hat on the hottest days, was overseeing construction of a down-link dish and "studio." However, the "studio" consisted of a single camera and a few tape recorders. There was no serious effort to provide local programming at all. The "studio" simply turned on the receiver, took the programming (including commercials) from North America, and sent it out over the TV channel. Coverage of the rest of the Caribbean was nonexistent. In fact, the famous annual Tobago Festival can be seen on TV worldwide -- but not in Grenada, just a few miles away. What people in Grenada see is what people in Boston see -- and they have no alternative.

A poet on the island of St. Lucia summarized their plight:

If you change your language, You must change your life.

Imported television is changing not only the language but the whole life of the Caribbean. To be sure, there is a "free flow" of TV--a free-flowing, endless outpouring of sitcoms, music-TV, game shows and commercials, none of which were chosen by the people of the Caribbean, and none of which support their own customs, stories, and values--their own "language." One can begin to understand why the third world is trying so desperately to achieve a "balanced" flow of communication. They enjoy much that is available through first-world programming, but they also would like to have their own culture expressed, their own news heard, their own values affirmed. They call for justice--in this case, balance in the kind of communication they have access to.

Selling Cigarettes to the World

An even more distressing example of cultural imperialism is the recent media campaign by U.S. tobacco companies to increase their cigarette sales overseas. After the surgeon general of the United States reported that cigarette smoking was killing thousands of citizens each year and TV cigarette ads were banned in 1971, the number of smokers at first held steady and then began to decline. Since 1981 U.S. cigarette sales have been going down at a rate of about 2 percent each year. This decline has prompted the industry to focus its advertising on potential new smokers--women and youth.

For example, the amount of visible smoke in cigarette ads in magazines has constantly decreased, to the point where in 1984 and 1985 no smoke was visible at all. Instead, the ads now associate cigarette smoking with health and vitality. For youth, they sell adventure (sailing) and risk (rock climbing). For women, they employ erotic images (romantic scenes on a yacht), and popularity (playing at a beach party). A recent study of tobacco ads concludes: "In the face of increasing public knowledge about the health risks of smoking and the shrinking population of current smokers, the tobacco industry has portrayed smoking in advertisements in a misleading manner -- as adventuresome, healthy, safe, and erotic, images in stark contrast to the voluminous data implicating smoking as a factor in ill health."11

But multinational corporations like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris are not content merely to foul their domestic nest. With the number of smokers continuing to drop at home, they found it imperative to extend their sales overseas. The results have been astonishing.

In 1988, C. Everett Koop, the U.S. surgeon general, released the twentieth surgeon general's report on smoking, a 618-page document which concluded that tobacco is as addictive as heroin. Charged Koop, "Smoking is responsible for well over 300,000 deaths annually in the United States--more than 30 times all narcotics-related deaths in the U.S. combined."12 At the same time, the Office of the United States Trade Representative in Washington was putting economic and political pressure on the governments of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea to withdraw their trade barriers and allow U.S. cigarette sales and advertising into their nations.

Before American intervention in the Korean and Taiwanese markets, both countries had near-total bans on tobacco advertising--no ads on TV, in newspapers, magazines, or even on billboards. Japan had similar industry self-regulation. Now, because of U.S. trade threats, the American companies are allowed to sell and advertise their cigarettes in all three nations without even carrying the warnings on the packages that are required in United States. Says Takeshi Hirayama, director of the Institute of Preventive Oncology in Tokyo, "We grew up seeing the U.S. behaving like a leader of the developing world. Now we see their commercials for dangerous cigarettes." Hirayama says that when he lectures before Japanese medical societies he always gets the same question: Why are Americans trying to encourage Japanese to smoke? "I cannot think what to say. Some doctors say the advertisements we have every night are an assault, like the old B-29 bombings. The term 'Ugly American' is coming back."13

The U.S. multinationals have a more difficult time in Europe, where they have faced severe restrictions on cigarette advertising for years. There the solution has been sponsorships. Philip Morris has sponsored a racing car in the Grand Prix for more than a decade, and R.J. Reynolds has sponsored a car since 1987. This way, as with such sponsorships in the United States as the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, tobacco companies get their products on TV without "advertising."

However, Canada has managed to withstand the pressure. In mid-1988 Canada passed laws that ban all tobacco advertising and require cigarette packs to carry a detailed warning of the dangers of smoking -- warnings that far exceed those in the United States. After 1993, all billboard and other outdoor advertising will be prohibited as well. How did this come about? First, about half of the nation's ten largest daily newspapers voluntarily stopped taking cigarette ads. Then smoking habits changed dramatically. Between 1982 and 1987 Canadian cigarette sales dropped 18 percent, while U.S. sales dropped only 8 percent. Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Canadian Non-Smokers' Rights Association, says, "The industry has had its legitimacy taken away. In America, they [the tobacco industry] still wrap themselves in the American flag."14

Indeed they do. In November 1987, Philip Morris, the U.S's largest tobacco company, sent a copy of Pravda to about five hundred newspaper editors. The cover letter read, "One world famous newspaper without cigarette advertising." The letter went on to say, "Pravda does not carry cigarette advertising or indeed any advertising. Government control of information is typical of totalitarian regimes and dictatorships"15 The mailing served little purpose, since virtually all U.S. newspapers regularly carry cigarette ads. But is Pravda-type control the only alternative? People in Western Europe and Canada think not. They believe that it is possible to regulate commercial speech such as advertising and still maintain freedom of expression. And leaders in nations such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea wonder, too. They wonder why the United States, once a world leader in justice for the developing world, today allows its corporations to penetrate their cultures and to poison their people.

Reversing the Tide

There are signs of hope--places where men and women are working to reverse the tide of international media imperialism. Through their mission and communication agencies, many of the mainline denominations in the United States and Canada support the work of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), an ecumenical agency dedicated to increasing genuine communication in the underdeveloped nations. The WACC is governed by elected officials designated by all seven regions of the world -- a truly democratic body where the third world has at least as much say as Europe and North America. With a staff of twenty located in Europe, this agency supports more than 150 communication projects in the third world.

For example, the Asian Social Institute in Manila illustrates how it is possible to reverse the tide of media domination. For twenty years the Philippines suffered under one of the most tightly controlled presses in the world. Whatever glorified the regime of Ferdinand Marcos was shown in the newspapers and on television; whatever was critical simply did not appear. In metropolitan Manila there is a large lake, more than a mile across. Prior to Marcos's imposition of martial law in 1972, the lake was a public fishing area supporting 70,000 people who lived around its shores. During the martial law years, the lake became "private," available only to large business interests and influential people in government. A cry for "justice" went up from the local fishermen--but they had no idea how to achieve justice.

The Asian Social Institute heard about the fishing community's problems. They taught local leaders how to develop their own newsletter. They showed local artists how to make posters that portrayed the local situation. They helped a group develop a slide presentation on the problem with a script written by the people themselves, incorporating their own poetry and songs. As the men and women grew more articulate in expressing their own problems, they developed the self-confidence to educate others and to take their plight to the whole community. They held a press conference. They began to generate support from lawyers, students, professionals, and church workers. They produced a daily local radio program, aimed at the fishing community, with local participants telling their own stories about the problem.

By the time President Marcos was overthrown in February 1986, the community leaders had developed enough skill and self-confidence to begin discussion with fishermen all over the country. In 1988 they organized a national congress, drafted a fisheries code that has been submitted to the Philippine Congress, and have been invited to various parts of the nation to train others in ecology.

This is but one example of small group media -- the use of simple communication techniques to enable people to express their own ideas and needs and to gain the experience and confidence to use media to help bring about change.

The WACC supports this and similar projects, plus printing, broadcasting, and other media projects both large and small all aimed at assisting the poor to free themselves from poverty and enslavement. Here is a concrete response to Paul's admonition to the Christians in Galatia: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).


We can summarize by saying that a relatively small number of corporations controls the production and distribution of communication throughout the world. These corporations are based primarily within the United States and other Western nations, and they are engaged in a kind of "peaceful invasion" of the third world, not to help poorer nations develop but to dominate them culturally and thus economically.

This rising tide of cultural domination can be turned back in two ways: through the support of efforts in the third world to achieve local communication that reflects local needs; and through reform of the media in the first world -- which we will consider in some detail in Chapter 11, "What We Can Do."

The first Commandment forbids making images to worship instead of God. Perhaps a commandment for our media age should forbid us to make images in our own image, which we impose upon others in order to dominate and control.



1. Anthony Smith, The Geopolitics of Information: How Western Culture Dom­inates the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

2. Smith, Geopolitics, p. 25.

3. William Fore, Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1987), p. 177.

4. Smith, Geopolitics, p. 90.

5c.Harry J. Skornia, TV and Society (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 191. 6. Alan Wells, Picture-Tube Imperialism: The Impact of u.s. Television on Latin America (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), p. 121.

7. Fore, Television and Religion, p. 179.

8. Sean MacBride, Many Voices, One World: Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (New York: Unipub, 1981).

9. William F. Fore, "A New World Order in Communication," in The Christian Century, April 14, 1981, p. 443.

10. Colleen Roach, "The U.S. Position on the New World Inforrnation Communication Order," Journal of Communication, vol. 37, no. 4 (Autumn 1987), pp. 36-38.

11. D. G. Altman, M. D. Slater, C. L. Albright, and N. Maccoby,. "How anUnhealthy Product is Sold: Cigarette Advertising in Magazines, 1960-1985," in Journal of Communication, vol. 37, no. 4 (Autumn 1987), pp. 95-106.

12. Peter Schmeisser, "Pushing Cigarettes Overseas," New York Times Maga-zine, July 10, 1988, p. 16.

13. Schmeisser, "Pushing Cigarettes," p. 20.

14. "Hearts, Minds, and Lungs," in Columbia Journalism Review, Fall 1987, p.6.

15. "Hearts, Minds, and Lungs," p. 6.