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William F. Fore

Does the Free Flow of Ideas Result in Cultural Imperialism?

VTR Date: March 18, 1982

Guest: Fore, William F.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Fore
Title: “Does the Free Flow of Ideas Result in Cultural Imperialism?”
AIR: 4/24/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Our subject today is freedom. On the one hand, the freedom that we traditionally associate with what has been called the free flow of ideas; and on the other hand, freedom from free flow. For some contemporary scholars feel that in the relations between big nations and small nations, free flow has become merely an ideological cover for domination and control. They feel that cultural imperialism has been its result. Perhaps even its purpose. And that free flow of information inevitably leads to a one-way flow, as it has been written, “From the rich and powerful in one society, to the weak and impoverished both within and without that society”. They feel that our strong ideological stand against recent efforts made by third world countries in UNESCO and other world forums to establish a new world information order based upon a somewhat controlled press is merely the means of rallying public opinion to the support of the commercial goals expressed as a ethical imperative. Well, this is the issue that I want to address today with a scholar/activist particularly well equipped to deal with the ethical concerns involved with Americans’ traditional devotion to a free flow of information.

Dr. William F. Fore is the Assistant General Secretary for Communication of the National Council of Churches. Dr. Fore, I have to start by asking you what in the world is the church doing involved with communications anyway?

FORE: Well, or course you could almost ask how could the church not be involved in the communication process, not only because it has a certain mandate to communicate its own understanding of the Gospel and how that relates to people, but more so in this issue that you’re just describing. The church sees this as an intensely ethical and moral issue. What we’re dealing with here is one of the great manifestations of power in the world today. And I think it would be remiss on the part of the church if we didn’t get in and begin to ask what are the ways communication are being used to either humanize or dehumanize people.

HEFFNER: Well, when you talk about ethical considerations, on what side in this debate over free flow of information do you find yourself?

FORE: Well, we hope we’re on the side of liberating people. And this is just the problem. In your introduction I think you fairly stated it’s a problem of the haves and the have-nots. And we have a world where communication becomes more and more a manifestation of the power of the haves, in this case the first world, the United States particularly, but also Europe and Japan, and they’re exerting a certain dominance, a certain amount of control, an increasing amount of control over the third world using the techniques of communication. And not just television or just radio; but news, information, certainly cultural dominance through radio and television. But even more importantly – and one thing you didn’t mention in the introduction – the whole question of data flow and the enormous amount of control that multinational corporations, western corporations are exerting in the third world through that kind of data flow. So the communication question: “Who gets the satellites, who gets the spectrum?” really determines in the future who gets the food, who gets to live as human beings.

HEFFNER: You know, when Herb Schuler was on this program, oh, some two years or so ago, and he had written about communications and the American empire and had stressed this point about communications being a form or an instrument for the extension of America’s imperial power, he said certain things that I’d like to ask you about. Do you think this is purposive or is it accidental that our communications media put us in a cat-bird-seed economic level?

FORE: I don’t thin that it’s purposive in the sense that a lot of evil people sat down and said, “Now let’s just see how we can shaft the rest of the world”. I think it is an inevitable consequence of the system of which we are a part, a system which really puts a premium on money and power, and not on people. And in the last few years has put more and more of a premium on untrammeled exercise of power, and very little control through the structures, through government or other kinds of structures that the people can exercise some involvement in containing that.

HEFFNER: But you know, you say the emphasis has been upon untrammeled or unrestrained exercise of this power. I would say, looking at the same situation, that the emphasis has been placed upon freedom. Now where do we pass in the night here?

FORE: Yeah. Well, a French philosopher in the last century said that when it comes to question s between the powerful and the weak, freedom results in justice, and law is the thing that results in justice. Freedom is understood by people in the third world as the freedom for unfair competition or the freedom of the fox in the chicken coop, you know. That’s freedom too. And it makes the chickens very unsettled.

HEFFNER: Well, it makes the chickens unsettled, but what about…

FORE: The fox is very happy.

HEFFNER: Well, do we have to characterize ourselves as foxes in this regard if we are communicating to the outside world? That’s the outside worlds’ perception. Do we have to accept it?

FORE: Well, that’s a good point, and I think not in the sense, as I said before, that our captains of industry are inherently more evil than anybody else. But yes in the sense that power corrupts. And the more power you have the more corruptive and corroding it is of people and their misuse and abuse of the power in order to gain more power.

HEFFNER: Ah, but, and I don’t say it to be cute, and I say it because I make a point…Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt. And in this instance I wonder whether we don’t have to argue that out. Power may corrupt; it tends to corrupt. But are you suggesting that it has corrupted us?

FORE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Are we corrupt in our use of free flow?

FORE: Oh, yes. I think there’s no doubt in my mind that Lord Acton’s words to the contrary, I think power does inevitably corrupt. I think it corrupts me and corrupts you and corrupts everyone to the extent that we have it. I think that incidentally comes out of a certain biblical and theological perspective that I hold. If Reinhold Lieber were here again today I’m sure he would be more eloquent about that point than I. That power does in fact corrupt people and that we are all corrupted to some extent. Therefore the solution, it seems to me, is to develop those structures and indeed those laws and regulations that will allow people to be more humane, to be more honest within the structures of the society. That’s what the law is all about.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Dr. Fore, our tradition in this country has been to keep law out of this domain, to keep it away from free expression.

FORE: Out of speech.

HEFFNER: Out of speech. Out of expression.

FORE: We’re not dealing – that’s a very important point – because we’re not dealing just with speech here.

HEFFNER: What are we dealing with?

FORE: I’m a very strong supporter of keeping government out of determining speech and suppressing speech, to be sure. But as I said before, we’re talking about a lot of other things. We’re talking about the cultural domination, we’re talking about economic domination. When 80 percent of the newspapers’ advertising in Peru is put into those newspapers from western, from United States ad agencies, when something like ten times the amount of news total worldwide comes out of the United States from AP and UPI principally as comes from all of the others combined, what you are getting is an economic force and an economic expression of domination that is not the same thing simply as free speech. We’re not talking about a guy on a soapbox here now having a chance to say something; we’re talking about a multimillion dollar multinational corporation using communication techniques to really dominate people economically.

HEFFNER: You’re saying then – well, I don’t know whether you’re saying this, and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth – but it sounds to me as if you were saying by extension, if in the exercise of my speech, the free exercise of my speech, I become powerful that that signals you to begin to limit my free expression. Is that a fair…

FORE: The way I’d rephrase it is…


FORE: …that our ultimate objective here is to achieve the most open, free flow of information in a society, that maximum amount of speech and expression, the exchange of expression. Now, if you become so powerful, let’s say through economic rather than political means – we’ve seen lots of political expressions – but through economic means, so that you could dominate and in fact maintain a monopoly on expression in a country, then our objective, which is openness of speech, is being hindered by your freedom to monopolize that speech. And at that point, then yes, I think the only recourse is for government in some way to regulate that process to allow new and additional sources of speech to come into the scene. And that would mean in fact limiting your power of speech.

HEFFNER: I remember – I shouldn’t say it that way, “I remember” – Woodrow Wilson in 1912…

FORE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …when he ran for president said he was for the man on the make, and he was the one who first, I think more effectively than Theodore Roosevelt, pushed the antitrust movement. But it wasn’t in the realm of expression. It wasn’t in the realm of free speech. And you’re saying that this time this is the area of real power, so this is the area where…

FORE: I think that’s a good analogy. We reached a point back in the late 1900s where monopoly became so great that government in fact did have to step in and order to maintain any semblance of free marketplace, economic marketplace. Now, I think we’ve reached the point, at limited points, some places in this society and certainly overseas where the same thing has now happened with the new manifestation of power which is not steel mills or railroad cars or whatever but is now the flow of speech. And somehow government has to regulate that process to allow, to keep the fox from taking over the chickens.

HEFFNER: But you know, I ws reading this absolutely extraordinary statement of yours. It’s so beautifully written and so balanced and so rational that I almost agreed with you. Not quite, not quite.

FORE: Pretty high marks. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well it appeared in The Christian Sentry. You said, “In recent years there has arisen a kind of mystical attraction to the principle of free speech, as if free speech were a kind of first principle, self-evident, self-validating, and deserving unquestioning loyalty above all other principles. But surely it is dangerously deceptive to deify any ethical principle, even one so important as the idea that an individual has a right to be heard”. That’s passing strange to me, because I had, up until the time I read this, been involved with the notion that indeed we don’t. This would be a run contrary to our religious principles. What we have raised to the highest level, our concern for the free individual speaking and listening as he or she will.

FORE: Well yes. And this may be a fine point I’m trying to make, but I think not. I think that there’s a difference between speech and the democratic process of the society. And I think that the greater good is the democratic process. Even Madison said, “The purpose of speech, free speech, open speech is not an end it itself, but is a means to achieving the political process where people can make up their own minds about their own destiny”. So I think speech has to be seen, even speech, not absolutized but seen as a means towards an end.

HEFFNER: You know, when I read your quotation from Madison I wanted to dig back in my history books and find what came before and what came afterwards…

FORE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …because I would have said that Madison and the other founders did find that it was democracy that was the means to the end of the development of the free individual.

FORE: Yes.

HEFFNER: And you have it the other way around.

FORE: No. No, no. The development of the free individual is an even greater good towards which democracy, of which democracy is instrumental. That’s quite right. So now we’ve got a hierarchy. We’ve got people, which is where I started. And when you asked why the church is interested. We’re interested in people and their humanness and the fullness of their potential. Democracy we believe in this country is a means of achieving that for people. And in order to make democracy work, back, one further step, we must have the maximum amount of free speech. But free speech is not the same thing, for example, as freedom of the press, though the press would like to make you think so. Even in this, I think I mentioned in this article you’re referring to, that Justice Burger in the famous red line issue says, “It is not the right of the broadcaster that is paramount; it is the right of the public to hear that is paramount”.

HEFFNER: But that’s why I was so careful to talk about freedom to speak and the freedom to listen.

FORE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So that you couldn’t catch me on that one, Dr. Fore. And I’m, let’s come back again, because I think this is so basic.

FORE: Yes, it is.

HEFFNER: If you say that democracy…Shall we call it majority rule, majority rule?

FORE: Of course it’s more than that. It’s also protection of the minority.

HEFFNER: Ah, but there we protect the minority so that one can respect the free individual.

FORE: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Okay. So it…

FORE: But it’s not just majority rule. If it were, we wouldn’t be protecting this minority.

HEFFNER: But that seemed to me was where you were bringing Madison in, as if that aspect of democracy, counting noses, were more important that the other aspect, that which is respectful of the individual probably above all else. Now, why have government if it doesn’t serve the free development of the free individual?

FORE: That’s exactly right. And to get back to the original discussion then, that’s precisely why you need government to constrain the untrammeled monopolistic tendencies in the area in this case of suppression of freedom of speech which is going onion this country and elsewhere today.

HEFFNER: But in this attempt to achieve a new information order, a new world information order, isn’t it fair to say that the smaller nations, the developing nations outside of our own orbit are looking for what they call free flow and balanced flow?

FORE: Yes, that’s right.

HEFFNER: And doesn’t the balance involve limitations upon our freedom?

FORE: Well, that’s, of course there are over 150 countries involved and some would gladly, I think, bring government in and force news people to do something different for example. I think that’s quite wrong. There’s no question about that. And that’s what some of them mean by balance. But most of them, like Mustafah Masmodi, this Algerian Minister of State for Communication, doesn’t mean that at all. He simply means that there needs to be a far better balance of interplay of opinions and ideas and information, and that the first world must not get all of its information about the third world through first world press, for example. People make up their minds bout what’s going on in El Salvador or in Africa or little countries in South America through the eyes of not those countries, but through the eyes of the United Press and the AP. He’s saying there should be some balance. Now, I think that there is a difference between control, which we certainly don’t want, and some kind of regulation, which I think can work. It certainly has worked in the case of broadcasting for the last 50 years in this country. I don’t think it could be said that government controls this studio or station or any other. But they have regulated it.

HEFFNER: Ah, but I’ve heard you at other times indicate that the regulation was so minimal as really not to exist.

FORE: That’s right. And I for one would rather see more regulation rather than the deregulation which, if the deregulation occurs, the very principle of economic interest, I predict, will force programs like this kind of program off the air, because they will not have any kind of government concern setting up any regulation that will ask the stations to broadcast in the public interest any longer.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ll make a bet. I’ll bet that at this moment you could find that it wasn’t a necessity in terms of any government control or regulation or eyebrow raising that this program is on the air. Now we could, you know, how are we going to resolve the bet? But I think that’s too simple a formula, that nothing worthwhile, if we can agree upon that, would happen…

FORE: Oh, well, I would not say nothing worthwhile. There’s still a chance for some grace in this world. I believe that. But I think the industry as a whole will tend, if the FCC completely deregulates radio and television, the industry will tend towards only one criterion, and that will be the bottom line of profits. And the old additional criteria that were in there as well during the days of regulation, public interest concerns, will slowly atrophy and disappear. You may be the very last one to go off the air, and I hope you are, but I think ultimately they’ll get them all.

HEFFNER: Dr. Fore, you don’t believe in that invisible hand, do you?

FORE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: It’s not going to work as you suggest.

FORE: No, I don’t believe in the invisible hand. Certainly not. Neither did Andrew Carnegie, God bless him. He built an empire by destroying the invisible hand. In fact, he became the hand. And so did John D. Rockefeller and so on. That’s why we needed monopoly antitrust of government to somehow constrain the monopoly.

HEFFNER: And you’re willing to use that same notion in reference to…

FORE: Not to control, but to in some way set up the rules of the regulations so that there will be a real genuine interplay and free flow.

HEFFNER: Certainly there’s no question that we would agree that it is desirable not to monopolize our information coming to us about the third world in terms of our collecting or gathering of that information, and that’s what you’re talking about. Nor is it desirable for third world countries to get all their information about themselves from us and seen through our eyes. And that’s a problem. But your remedy, you say, you talked about the validity of the complaints, the seeking of a balance, free flow and balanced flow. And then you, in another article that you had written, you had said, “Perhaps we are about to see a global First Amendment war, as Time magazine suggests. If so, we can at least be grateful that the discussion has begun to sensitize American media to the inadequacies of their present coverage of the third world. And if there is to be a war, I can think of no better place than in the United Nations, no better ammunition than words and ideas, and no better subject than the issue of freedom of speech”. But in the United Nations we are a fairly lonely voice, aren’t we? Presenting a tradition that isn’t shared by many, many, many, or most of all the nations of the world.

FORE: Almost all. We have practically no friends in this area except perhaps one or two of the European countries.

HEFFNER: Then why in the world should we throw this into the u8nioted Nations where we know we’re overwhelmed by people who do not share our intellectual heritage?

FORE: It seems to me that that kind of arena is the best place to discuss world issues, a world arena.

HEFFNER: It’s the best place to lose.

FORE: Well, then if our objective simply is to in rather than to be either fair, just or other kinds of moral and ethical issues which I have to keep raising, then of course we should stay out of the United nations, probably boycott it or at the very least cut off all our funds to it and move right out into the marketplace economically in order to win. But that to me is not our objective.

HEFFNER: You know, I was saying before we went on the air now, that I had once looked into the matter of attitudes toward direct satellite-to-home broadcasting. And there had been a Soviet resolution in the early 1970s calling for prior censorship. And the vote in the United Nations, on a prior basic vote, was 101 to one. We were the only ones to cast a vote at that point against prior censorship. Not to say we are good and they are bad, but to say that we have basic to our tradition an idea that isn’t shared. Now, I think if we hold this truth to be even more than self-evident – you don’t seem to – then I don’t see how we can put ourselves in that position.

FORE: I think that was not the only issue there. It was, when you say “prior censorship”, but the issue was whether governments through a direct-broadcast satellite have the right to broadcast into another government, into another country without that nation’s permission. That’s a different thing from pre-censorship within a country.

HEFFNER: Now, we’re not talking about reception; we’re talking about sending a signal. It’s one thing for another nation to say, “We will not receive this signal. We will arrange it so that our citizens, who don’t have this tradition of freedom of the listener and the viewer as well as of the speaker, to not receive these”. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted us to censor what we would do.

FORE: I’m not trying to justify that position. But the technology is what makes these moral things so difficult. Because it’s virtually impossible to keep people in that country, a country can’t arrange for its citizens not to receive it. You can’t jam it that simply when you have a signal that you’re dropping down into the hole circle of Europe, let’s say, the eight or nine countries there are going to receive it. So the countries involved, trying to maintain a certain amount of their own sovereignty and selfhood and integrity as they see it, say, “We don’t want Russian programs coming into France unless France wants them to come in”.

HEFFNER: Dr. Fore, if the French wanted not at all for their citizens to receive our signals, and they were determined that they would take the responsibility for being the censors, certainly the sets manufactured in France and permitted in France could be so arranged as not to receive our signals.

FORE: It’s technically possible, but it’s a lot more expensive that trying to deal with the generic question of who should broadcast into whose territory.

HEFFNER: But how expensive will it be for us to put ourselves in a position where…

FORE: Well, again, I’m not trying to…

HEFFNER: I don’t mean in money terms, but in terms of our tradition of free speech.

FORE: Yeah. Yeah, I certainly don’t, I’m not advocating this kind of pre-censorship on the question of direct-broadcast satellite. But that to me is not a central issue. The central issue to me is the kind of enormous structure that the United States primarily has established worldwide which is enabling it to economically dominate and in many cases politically dominate third world countries to their detriment in the name of our profits, using communication as a medium.

HEFFNER: What do you think will happen? What do you think is going to happen now?

FORE: As I said in that article, we’re going to have, there’s going to be lots of fighting about this. Now, some of these problems are beginning to be resolved, I’m glad to see, because worrisome people like myself keep raising these issues. A lot of the press in this country are beginning to recognize that perhaps they have been one-sided in their inflow of information about the third world. There’s a whole new press called Interpress Organization which provides nothing but third world news to the newspapers in this country. That’s a step forward, an encouraging sign. The United States government has agreed to try to help improve the facilities for not only news but also radio and television and other information facilities in a number of third world countries. Why? Because they began to get the message at a recent meeting in Geneva when they heard all the third world countries clamoring for some changes. So fortunately there are some hopeful signs here. But we have to be careful about our own moral imperatives and what is of utmost importance to us as a nation.

HEFFNER: And someday we’ll have to agree on what those imperatives are. Meanwhile, thank you very much for joining me today, Dr. William Fore.

FORE: I’ve enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.