Herbert I. Schiller

Freedom of the Press or ‘Cultural Imperialism’

VTR Date: June 1, 1979

Guest: Schiller, Herbert I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Herbert Schiller
Title: Freedom of the Press or ‘Cultural Imperialism’
VTR: 6/1/1979

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And our subject today is freedom. On the one hand the freedom that traditionally we 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 strongly 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 leads to a one-way flow from the rich and powerful within one society to the weak and impoverished both within and without that society. Herbert I. Schiller, Professor Communications at the University of California at San Diego, has written extensively from this point of view in his “Mass Communications and the American Empire”, in “Benign Managers”, and in “Communication and Cultural Domination”. His provocative ideas may well be encapsulated in what I consider a cynical analysis of the American concept of free flow of ideas as the means of rallying public opinion to the support of a commercial goal expressed as an ethical imperative.

So, let me introduce my guest, Professor Schiller. Professor Schiller, let me ask whether you take much exception to my characterization of that last point of yours as rather cynical, that there is a purpose to this free flow.

SCHILLER: Well, I don’t regard what I have said about it. And what I would say now certainly a very large majority of the nations of the world say about it as cynical. I think it’s a recognition of reality and for a very long time we’ve been refusing to see the way these developments have occurred, the mechanics behind these developments, the consequences. So I just think we’re calling a situation what it really is, and we’re not doing this for any ulterior purposes or because we have odd designs.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re saying that our communication system is an agent of penetration for cultural imperialism around the world. Is that a fair statement?

SCHILLER: Well, I don’t think you have to say it’s an agent for penetration. It serves as a penetration force. I don’t think it has to be enlisted, because its own aims, its own objectives are in tune with a larger set of aims and objectives of the overall system. After all, our largest communications media are themselves the brothers and sisters of the rest of the corporate community. The aims of the rest of the community are practically the same as the media community. The only difference in this particular instance is that the media community is seeking for specific markets for specific media products. They’re looking to sell books, they’re looking to sell photograph records, they’re looking to sell comic books. So that there’s a tremendous interest purely on the commercial level in the media field, and that very interest serves the rest of our dominant corporate society. It creates a willingness, it creates a receptivity, it creates a certain type of proclivity of certain more affluent classes around the world which then thrusts those other societies in directions that are probably very dysfunctional for the rest of their populations, the majority of their populations.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “dysfunctional”?

SCHILLER: Dysfunctional in the sense, for example, if you’re living in a relatively poor country with meager resources at a relatively limited standard of living, and you’re trying to break out of that cycle of low productivity and backwardness, and you find that your most influential classes are beginning to imitate and beginning to act and beginning to influence their own society to have the kinds of consumer goodies that are so very favored in our society. And in the sense, for example, in a very, very specific, real way, to the extent that such a society would import automobiles, to take one product. To that extent they may be denying a major kind of transportation alternative which would be far more superior to their particular needs. To the extent they would even go into example certain kinds of expenses, hospital facilities, when they might have a much more important allocation of resources to preventive instruction to even what is called barefoot doctors. There are so many other ways that are much more, I would say, relevant to the needs of roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the world’s population than the kinds of consumer standards that are employed in our country.

HEFFNER: Would you then, adopt a more paternalistic attitude toward what the populations of the developing countries might see? Would you determine that they could not see American products that might lure them into more of a consumer society? Is that what you’re suggesting?

SCHILLER: Well, when you say “paternalistic”, are you saying I’m in charge of those societies or I’m operating from my own base in the United States?

HEFFNER: Well, I quite can’t figure out what it is you would do, because you describe a situation.

SCHILLER: Well, Dick, let me say this. I don‘t have to do anything. What I have been writing has become in a sense – or I shouldn’t even put it that way – this is in a sense a very real and very deep feeling that’s expressed in many countries. So I don’t have to do a thing. Many, many countries, many, many leaderships, and many, many large sections, certainly in the intellectual and policy-making areas of numerous nations are puzzling about these matters, making probably some false starts, but are trying to deal with the question of what kind of information policy, what kind of cultural policy. And I think we do ourselves a great disservice to look upon this automatically a threat, automatically the imposition of some kind of dark censorship. We can’t make decisions for these societies. These societies are going to make their own decisions and they are frequently going to be very, very different than the kinds of arrangements we practice here. And I would go a step further. I would say some of the arrangements we practice here may very well have to be changed also. Because it’s not only the Third World that suffers from what you attribute to my writings in terms of cultural imperialism. A very good chunk of our own domestic population lives in a very murky world of non-information, misinformation, anti-information, and just plain garbage circulating as information.

HEFFNER: Well, you write in the Journal of Communications back in ’74, you say, “The communications cultural component in national life cannot be viewed as a marginal element in national policy formulation. What people believe, what they aspire to, and what moves them to act or not to act constitute an essential part of the community’s living pattern. To permit this pattern to be subjected to external influence an control would seem unthinkable”. Now you’re talking about other nations.

SCHILLER: In that passage I’m talking about other nations.

HEFFNER: Now, would you use this same approach in this nation where you say to permit this pattern, etcetera, etcetera, are you suggesting that you would be, if you don’t accept the phrase “paternal”, the word “paternalism” for those abroad, would you be more paternalistic here at home?

SCHILLER: It’s not a question of being paternalistic. It’s a question of breaking open very rigid, very centralized, very monopolistic information structures that deny, that block, that select, and that only allow a thin trickle of information to our own population.

HEFFNER: Yes, but…

SCHILLER: And it’s not a question of being paternalistic. It’s a question of we have – and this is, I think, an incredible aspect of the nonsignificance of our political life and why there is massive voter abstinence and passivity – because the crucial questions in our society are not being addressed. And in this regard I’m still to find one political party, one political leader that puts on the top of their political agenda the question of our mass communication system.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, you’re talking – that’s fair enough, and we shall – about information news. By and large the people who have been talking about cultural imperialism have been talking about another kind of information input, information entertainment.


HEFFNER: Because it is the entertainment fare, not the news fare…


HEFFNER: …that goes abroad. And there I gather you see, and your fellow scholars who are in agreement with you see that we have exported a way of life and with it a kind of approach to man and society.


HEFFNER: This is what your major concern is.

SCHILLER: Yes. And I would also add to that – we can’t go into all of the mechanics here; they get rather complicated – but it’s not only the exploitation of media products, although that’s a very crucial component in this communications discussion, but it’s also the surrounding informational services that go into any large-scale media structure. Say, for example, the entire processes of advertising. We don’t only export films; we export McCann Ericson, Jay Walter Thompson, Ted Bates, Ogilvy & Mather. Every one of those top-ten US companies is a worldwide company with anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their total revenues coming outside this country.

HEFFNER: Now, you say, “We export”.


HEFFNER: Who are “we”? Is there a government…

SCHILLER: I think you’ve got a good point there. I should be a little careful with that “we” because I don’t think you’re part of that “we” and I don’t think I’m part of that “we”, so I’ll drop that “we” and I’ll say that the large-scale corporate community is the component that I’m referring to here.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but I’ve not expressed my concern or phrased my question well enough, because when I say, “Who are ‘we’, “ there is – Herb, always as I read you, we’ve argued about this before – the sense of a devil theory that there is something – and you may deny this – something of a conspiracy afoot. This is a larger picture that we design. Because I don’t think of you as…

SCHILLER: But Dick, you see, whenever historical or social analysis tries to look for the larger relationships and tries to integrate an understanding, invariably up comes the charge, “Conspiracy”. Now, I don’t think that’s an appropriate way of responding to what I and many others are saying. I’m not discussing this in terms of did six people get together and plan that Life magazine or Time magazine or that MGM should penetrate Tanzania. We’re not discussing this. We’re talking the operations of a commercial, corporate system, what its imperatives are, the need for markets. Let’s stay with television for a minute. Now, you know quite well to produce a very high-quality – by “high-quality” I don’t mean in terms of any standard of esthetic quality – but I mean a highly polished half an hour of American TV is a very expensive proposition. Now, today it’s so expensive that those who produce it can’t recoup their costs from the domestic market. They have to go into that foreign market. Now, that’s a commercial imperative; that’s not a conspiracy. When they go into that commercial market they have to penetrate it and make that product desirable, they have to be able to have a media system that’s willing to receive it, and thereby we get all of the kinds of political and economic and commercial interlocks. This is not a conspiracy; these are the results of the system at work which needs certain outlets to be able to keep going and make its money.

HEFFNER: That’s one half. That’s one half of the situation. It’s this one half of it that makes the product and that attempts to sell it.


HEFFNER: But there is a buyer.


HEFFNER: There is another half.

SCHILLER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: And it doesn’t work. The firs half doesn’t work unless there is a second half. The first half doesn’t work unless what we export is desired, right?

SCHILLER: Here I could give you – I won’t give you a cynical answer – but very often we arrange the buyer too. You know, Lockheed arranged the buyer in Japan and most of our companies arranged the buyers in Iran. But in the media products, no. I don’t think they have to make these kinds of special payoff deals, because as I say, most of our media products are extremely attractive to certain social components in societies around the world. It is through those components that you find a very willing and receptive audience. Unfortunately those components basically are antithetical to the needs of most of the people in their own societies. And that’s the substance of the problem.

HEFFNER: And that’s of course why I began the problem by using the word “paternalistic”. You say it runs contrary…


HEFFNER: …what the export runs contrary to the real needs.


HEFFNER: But obviously not to the felt needs of those communities at large.

SCHILLER: Well, it’s very difficult to say when you say “felt needs”. That same argument is used domestically too. And all of our television leaders constantly are soothing our feelings by saying, “We’re giving you what you want”. Well, when you give people what they’ve only had, have had no opportunity to know anything else, and you continuously operate on that level, you have created a closed circle.

HEFFNER: Yes, but…

SCHILLER: And in most of these other countries that closed circle is still not totally formed. And I think where there is still an opportunity in many places for them to develop their own paths and their own options.

HEFFNER: Well, but that, I think, is precisely the point. That whatever it is you say, may say about our domestic situation, we are one of a number of sources of entertainment, informational programming. And we’re talking basically about entertainment now. What we offer seems to be that which is more attractive, even in the midst of many, many other suppliers, the potential is there for American product to be rejected, yet it is not rejected. It is embraced. It is accepted. It is devoured. And that again, is why I suspect a considerable amount of paternalism must be involved if this flow is to be stopped, if this flow is to be changed, as I think you would like it to be changed. Well, we’re not talking about a monopoly now that Americans have.

SCHILLER: Paternalism, you see, the choice of this term is to me not very helpful to the discussion because it’s not a question of how you feel or I feel or even how our media controllers feel. It’s a question of how the leaders and influential groups in these other societies feel.


SCHILLER: And they won’t really, when it comes down to it, ask our opinion at some point. In many places they may, but they won’t eventually.

HEFFNER: But I can ask your opinion.

SCHILLER: You can ask my opinion.

HEFFNER: Okay. And so I would ask you opinion about the level of comfort or discomfort that you experience at the thought that there are those in other countries who feel, “this is good for our people that is bad for our people. We will avail ourselves of these ideas or these entertainments and not of those”. Are you comfortable with that – you don’t like the word “paternalism”, or maybe as applied in this way you would accept it – are you comfortable or uncomfortable with that kind of predetermination?

SCHILLER: But you see, what you’re suggesting in the particular case you’ve advanced here, that that’s somehow much more restrictive than what you are claiming as a non-predetermined. Almost every kind of a product that comes out in the media system here in a sense is predetermined. It’s predetermined by economic, commercial considerations. And there’s no way of sanctifying the free market as some kind of a total willingness to allow everybody’s greatest amount of well-being and choice. The free market operates with very built-in controls based on influence, power, and uneven income distribution. And in another society I don’t think there’s anything so upsetting – maybe it wouldn’t work out well – but I don’t see anything to be initially upset when you say, “They look for another system to determine how they’re going to devise their cultural policies and get away from a free-market approach”.

HEFFNER: Then the question of freedom in other countries doesn’t really impinge upon your thoughts in this matter. They’ll do what they want. If a rising class in the developing countries makes the assumption, as you do, that this material is negative, and decides that it will bar it, even though up to this point it seems to be more than accepted, very popular, you’re not bothered by that.

SCHILLER: Dick, let’s escalate the discussion. Let’s move back…

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

SCHILLER: Let’s move back to the very beginning when you talked of freedom, you see. Now, I would submit that you’re suggesting that if all these places begin to move in this direction somehow or other, the concept or the actual existence of this term “freedom” is threatened, menaced. And I’m saying that the way our society – and this is particularly true in recent decades, although you can make a case going quite a ways back to the beginnings of the country – but certainly in recent decades the way those who have been in a position to make the definitions have defined freedom, is to make it absolutely synonymous with property. And for example, when we talk about a free press, we are talking about a press that is privately owned. Well, to me, that is a definition that can be taken out, examined, and even rejected without making me feel like the world is coming down. I can give you as an example a few, oh, must have been a year or two ago when they were having this social turbulence in Portugal, you remember?

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

SCHILLER: And in which actually the Third World in this instance exported some of that turbulence back to Portugal. The Portuguese army was in a sense…picked up some of the anti-imperialism in Angola. And in that very brief period was the possibility of some significant change in Portugal. I remember our media here getting very excited that the Portuguese media might be moving in some sort of an unfree direction. And then we find that it wasn’t considered in any way restrictive that the Portuguese media was owned by a half a dozen banks and insurance companies. That was defined as free. Now, I think we’ve got to be very careful when we use these terms. And it would be a very different thing if we had some kind of trust arrangements for our newspapers or for our television or for our radios. If we had some kind of public policy councils for them. Then we might be able to use that term a little bit more unreservedly. But I think it’s a very, very curious definition of freedom to limit it exclusively to private ownership.

HEFFNER: Herbert, do you say this because you’re aware of any number of instances in which the kinds of ownerships, of ownership patterns that we have have resulted in a blockage of what we’ve traditionally considered free flow? I mean, does it come from…

SCHILLER: Dick, Dick, even the term “free flow” is, in a very real sense, a contrived construct. By that I mean I’m not against the free flow. I don’t know anybody who has even a particle of civilized or sense of humanity who would be against what is a free flow. The fact is there has never been a free flow. There is no free flow in the United States. In fact, it’s almost difficult to imagine how a free flow could ever exist, although one might work toward a free flow. But to throw that expression around as if this was a commonplace in our own society is a total misreading. There is a constant level of selectivity. And when you talk about our society having a free flow and has it ever been abused by this structure of control that I’ve just mentioned, well, all you have to do is turn back the whole pages of American labor. And if you go back to our entire media system, certainly many, maybe for a hundred years in the print area, and then we come in the last four years into broadcasting, 50 or 60 years broadcasting, and TV only in the last 30. In what period would you ever say the bulk of our media system ever gave a fair shake to labor?

HEFFNER: You’re talking about contemporary media?

SCHILLER: I’m talking about our media system contemporarily or of the last 150 years. So when you say that they, is there any relationship to private ownership and the content of what comes out, I would say there certainly is. And not only in the news; in every kind of an entertainment program. When do you ever see a working person portrayed as a human being in any of our media situations?

HEFFNER: Well, I think…

SCHILLER: They’re an animal. They’re a beer-swilling animal. That’s what they are.

HEFFNER: Herb, these are ideas you expressed years ago, and you were correct years ago.

SCHILLER: I’m consistent. I stick with them.

HEFFNER: I’m not so sure. Yes, you can stick with them. You can always stick with them. I’m not so sure you’re correct in doing so if you’re talking about contemporary media. But look, we’re not physicists talking about free flow, saying, “Of course, there’s no free flow”.


HEFFNER: It’s all determined.


HEFFNER: We’re trying to identify…

SCHILLER: Well, you’re on my side now.

HEFFNER: Am I? No. Because if we were physicists, then I’d be on your side and say, “Of course there’s no free low. Who ever heard of free flow?” We can look back, look back and find a physical source for all informational or energy flows. We’re not doing that. We don’t need to do that. We’re old friends. We can talk about his question of whether by and large the media are quite so much the hand servants, the handmaidens of the interests, the economic interests in this country.

SCHILLER: Dick, I don’t think one has to be doctrinaire or sectarian or just unwilling to change with new times. I don’t see how there could be anything else but this. If we take a look, let us take an area that we’re not engaged with at the moment. Let’s take the print field. We can, since we’re on TV, we can talk about eh print here, all right? Now, in the print field, could anyone describe that as being an open situation where something like 95 percent of the American towns and cities have one newspaper? Even this great metropolis, New York City, is down to three newspapers for eight million people. The Gannett chain runs something like 75 newspapers, and there are a couple of other chains. And you have all these things structured. Now, can this be regarded as an open structure?

HEFFNER: Herb, again, I agree with you, but you’re speaking almost as if we were talking physics. When I’m talking about the consequences I’m not talking about the economics of the structure; I’m talking about, I asked you the question, whether indeed you can identify…


HEFFNER: …a number, an important number of instances in which basically, the freedom of information, the free flow of ideas has been stopped in this country and we can point out…

SCHILLER: But you see, Richard, I think here you almost are accepting the way we define news as a flash instant.

HEFFNER: No, no.

SCHILLER: We’re talking of structures. And there is a continuing permanent blockage of news. It’s not as if you have to find one item. Every now and again we come up with one instance and everybody clucks their tongue that GE or whoever it was didn’t want Jane Fonda on a program because the program relates to nuclear energy and Jane Fonda’s position is known and they’re producing, GE is producing the program. And everybody says, “Oh, isn’t that a shame?” and, “That’s an example of an intrusion”. And then we all feel good about it that we’ve recognized it. That’s just that proverbial one little item that hits into our consciousness. But I’m talking about a systematic, day-in, day-out nondevelopment of information.

HEFFNER: If we had a half hour instead of 15 seconds left, what I’d love to talk about is, I’d love to say, “Okay, let’s turn it all around”.


HEFFNER: “Let’s have different kinds of controls or different sources of power, and see what the downside would be…


HEFFNER: …of that.” But now I’ve just gotten the signal to say, “Wrap it up”, so, thank you very much, Professor Schiller, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I do hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say – another old friend – “Good night, and good luck”.