Global Media and Public Opinion: The New Superpower

Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators in Context, originally posted at www.calvert-henderson.com, 2007

Of all the recent global changes, news media were most baffled about the emergence of what many are now calling the world’s new superpower: global civil society and public opinion. Regular opinion surveys in over 60 countries — North, South, East and West — are now regularly conducted by high-quality firms including Gallup, Environics (now Globescan), the Pew Center and others. The concept of this third sector has barely entered political science textbooks to complement the former main categories: the public and private sectors. Most of the US presidential hopefuls for the 2008 election run web sites and many shun the mainstream media to communicate directly with voters. Politicians in Britain’s ruling Labor Party and their opposition Conservatives are both hailing the “third sector” in their platforms. (The Economist, July 2006). Largely driven by new communications technologies, the Internet, blogs, YouTube, I-pods, cell phones, etc. civic organizations and social movements can make their voices heard. The Live 8 rock concerts to “Make Poverty History” staged in all G8 countries, were seen by some 3 billion people around the world. Al Gore’s “live Earth” global rock concerts in July 2007 estimated audiences of 2 billion. An estimated 10-15 million people worldwide demonstrated their opposition to the Iraq war. In June 2006, Mikhail Gorbachev convened a ground-breaking seminar in Venice, Italy to explore with leading global journalists, editors, publishers and TV producers the issues of Media Between Citizens and Power. A full report by Nancy Roof is in the important global journal Kosmos. I am honored to serve on the editorial board of Kosmos.

Shocking TV coverage of civilian casualties in Lebanon turned world opinion against Israel and the US. Hundreds of thousands of representatives of civic groups convene at the World Social Forums in Brazil, Indica and Africa to offer alternatives to economic orthodoxies of the “Washington Consensus” (i.e., the World Bank, the IMF and the US Treasury Department). Civic groups searched for deeper questions and answers than those covered in daily mass media. Peace and non-violence are now widely-identified as fundamental to human survival. Even economists agree that peace, non-violence and human security are “global public goods” along with clean air and water, health and education — bedrock conditions for human well-being and development. Former US Vice-President Al Gore has gained more attention to global warming as a movie “star” and author than he did as a politician.

Many scientists are reevaluating the work of Charles Darwin and its distortion by Victorian elites in Britain into their theories of the “survival of the fittest,” a term coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, a British economist. Close re-examination of Darwin’s research and notebooks now reveal that he did not believe that this competition between species was fundamental in humans. Instead Darwin believed that the success of humans was more based on their ability to bond, cooperate, and even evolve morally toward altruism. For more on this scientific debate, visit www.thedarwinproject.com and my paper 21st Century Strategies for Sustainability.

As human technologies evolve — global communications, satellites, weapons of mass destruction (and distraction!) — questions re-emerge about the nature of human nature. Are we simply “naked apes,” a mammalian species colonizing every niche on planet Earth, devouring 40% of all primary photosynthesis production of its biosphere, driving other species to another Great Extinction? Or are we ourselves evolving into wider awareness of our planetary responsibilities as “global citizens”? Will our godlike collective technological powers drive us either to destruction or toward re-designing our societies, cultures and values to reflect our new place in nature? In Planetary Citizenship (2004), I and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda debated these shared concerns. Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard explores these issues in her award winning film Humanity Ascending.

These new debates are already defining this 21st century. It is evident that the “hare” of technological innovation has outrun the “tortoise” of social innovation. A sobering series of articles in Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2005 warn of “The Next Pandemic?” due to fragmented polices and mis-allocation of medical resources leading to a lag by governments in preparing for new influenza threats. Such lags underlie all today’s global issues, from how to control weapons of mass destruction, human cloning, genetically-modified foods, agriculture and basic materials (via nanotechnology) to health, new epidemics, education, the role of global mass media for good and ill, to environmental degradation, pollution and climate change.

Underlying all these global issues is that of how to steer these human technological powers toward genuine human development, sustainable prosperity and social progress. I spent six years grappling with these issues at the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment – shut down by Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader of Congress in 1996. Ever since the founding of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 “to free humanity from the scourge of war” and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humans have been quietly hammering out these issues underlying our global future. Global agreements have led to enforceable treaties and international law covering arms control, health, environmental protection, exchange of scientific knowledge — many of these spurred on by grassroots movements and the burgeoning of civil society as a new force in world affairs.

Such people political power lies beyond national boundaries and requires new forms of global representation, such as the “people’s assembly” at the UN, which global citizens are demanding. Recognizing the enormous power wielded by global corporations, the UN Global Compact (which asks them to sign on to its 10 Principles of good corporate citizenship) has now swelled to over 3000 corporations worldwide. Sadly, few US-based companies have signed on. A notable exception is our partner, The Calvert Group, with CEO Barbara Krumsiek serving on the Compact’s global Advisory Council. Calvert also helped finance two groundbreaking new reports, co-sponsored by the Global Compact and UNEP-Finance, Who Cares, Wins: Connecting Social Markets to a Changing World and The Materiality of Environmental, Social, and Governance Factors in Equity Pricing.

Other examples of this upwelling of global citizenship range from the Earth Charter (www.earthcharter.org), the Parliament of the World’s Religions, FORUM2000 and the Prague Declaration launched by former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the Hague Appeal for Peace, the arms control and children’s rights campaigns of Nobel prizewinners, Oscar Arias, Betty Williams, Jody Williams and Nelson Mandela; Mother Teresa’s work for the poor and sick. Even Princess Diana’s short-lived humanitarian efforts and death led to a global outpouring of grief as some 2 billion, one third of the planet’s inhabitants watched her funeral on global television.

People everywhere began to understand the “CNN effect” and focused on the new power of mass media — to unseat leaders such as Fernando Marcos, President Estrada in the Philippines, Lozado in Bolivia and elect populist leaders. Linking by satellites, the mass media, the Internet and the World Wide Web has led to a new form of governance: mediocracies (both media-controlled and mediocre), which I described in Building a Win-Win World (1996). Today, we all live in mediocracies, whether our older government structures are democratic, feudal, authoritarian or fascist. Mass media are the nervous systems of our body politic — wherever we live. We the people have learned about media bias and spin and that whoever controls mass communications wins elections, power, money, fame and influence. Political dissent against Bush policies migrated to the Comedy Channel with Jon Stewart’s irreverent “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report”. CNN’s Lou Dobbs’ “War on the Middle Class” brought irresponsible corporate power and immigration issues to the boiling point.

Protest movements have learned to use media, from Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners, Amnesty International, women’s organizations and other human rights groups, and Transparency International focusing on corruption in high places, to Internet-based heavies, moveon.org, the Dailykos.org and the World Social Forum (www.wsf.org) offering alternative development models beyond the Washington Consensus and corporate globalization; www.corpwatch.org , www.globalexchange.org ; the UK-based alternative economy groups, the New Economics Foundation (www.nef.org ), www.VIA3.net , Focus on the Global South www.focusweb.org based in Bangkok. The US-based www.moveon.org first demonstrated the ability to raise large sums of money for progressive causes. The latest concerns with video and viewers flocking to the Internet is the growing use of bandwidth, which may, by 2010, see the Internet gobbling up half of all the electricity generated on the planet! Computer makers, including IBM and others are now addressing this issue, which requires a quantum leap in the energy efficiency of computers.

What people are now realizing (like fish who didn’t notice the water surrounding them) is that mass media which shape our perceptions, the “news” we see and our political agendas — are owned by a handful of giant corporate conglomerates. These media oligopolies, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, General Electric, Vivendi, Time Warner, Microsoft and AOL, are run largely by aging white males, mostly from North America — another form of US unilateralism. Most of the world’s entertainment, movies, TV, radio, videos, DVDs, music CDs, electronic games emanate from Hollywood or New York, the advertising and public relations center. Sports media are more international. TV is beginning to develop more local cultural content, led by Brasil’s GLOBO, with India and China leading with movies, video and Internet industries.

Meanwhile the flood of images of violence, pornography and human degradation still emanates from the USA and its “free market” commercial media sheltered from criticism or regulation by the First Amendment to the US constitution protecting “free speech.” Such media monitoring groups as Freedom House misunderstand the issue by measuring freedom of speech by the numbers of TV sets, radios, telephones per household — whether or not these are programmed with owners’ biases, propaganda, commercialism, pornography, misinformation or trashy entertainment.

Yet the US public knows that in their increasingly conglomerated media, free speech is limited to elites who own or control media outlets and their favored “pundits.” In 2003, we saw the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission give these media oligarchs even more freedom to buy up independent TV, radio and newspapers in many US cities later struck down by the courts. Yet, small town residents still find that most of their local media are controlled not by local editors, but faraway national or global conglomerates — often with national advertisers able to “can” or spin local stories of pollution or corruption. Citizens also learn that these media giants control politicians, “spin” national issues and US foreign policies. Most international news in US papers comes from one source, Associated Press.

Today, US voters and citizens everywhere are confronting organized, well-funded special interests, the corruption of their governments by money, the un-elected power of media owners, the growing reach of global corporations, and incessant advertising, public relations, entertainment programming and consumerism, all of which are fundamentally re-shaping traditional cultures in all countries across the globe. The Information Age itself, the digital divide and who controls communications technologies and outlets are now major issues, along with financing of politics, the design of voting machines, and governance.

Mass media are now seen as either a positive force in these efforts or continuing to enmire humanity in negative images of primitive and violent behavior and cycles of revenge. Many journalists already accept the new media responsibilities. They know that simplistic ideas of “objectivity” in reporting are at odds with the new realities of corporate power, commercial censorship and “embedded journalism” war coverage, as well as self-censorship in knowing what stories editors will likely reject. The new journalism and media will dig deeper for the causes of today’s violent events and reject the editorial formula “If It Bleeds, It Leads.” They will devote equal time to all the un-reported positive stories and role models of community development, local leadership, individual entrepreneurship and social innovation — to inspire billions of humans toward their new possibilities for a brighter future in 2007 and beyond.

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