The Politics of Information

This series, from 1983, gave me a chance to ponder issues, concerning the power and responsibility of journalistic media, that had preoccupied me every since I had begun working for CBC Radio twelve years before.  Two "hooks" provided the occasion.  The first  was the calling of a Royal Commission to consider the problem of growing monopoly in the newspaper business.  This was the Kent Commission, after commissioner Tom Kent, which reported in 1981.   The second was the publication, in 1980, of the book which gave the series its title, Anthony Smith's The Geo-Politics of Information, a book on the clamour in what was then generally called the Third World for a New World Information Order, so-called, one not totally dominated by Western media.  Both of these question are addressed - the history (and myth) of the free press in Part One, the New World Information Order debate in Part Two - but the series also allowed me to go further.  Part Three looks at foreign news and draws heavily on the work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.  Chomsky had recently published, with Edward Herman, a two volume work called The Political Economy of Human Rights, which had had a huge influence in shaping my view of media.  In these books Chomsky and Herman show how a nominally free press faithfully reproduces what they call "imperial ideology."  Said, for his part,  had just brought out Covering Islam, a book in which he brought the thesis of his  celebrated Orientalism into the present with a consideration of contemporary news coverage of Islamic countries.  The final show of the set focused on the news industry's "mode of production" and the ways in which it shapes its finished product. 

One notable thing about this series was the number of prominent scholars in the field who agreed to take part.  I have mentioned Chomsky and Said, but there was also Stuart Hall, James Curran, Gaye Tuchman, Lewis Lapham, Todd Gitlin and many others.  Another was the strength of the interviews I recorded for the series, which led me into my first questioning of the documentary format in which I was then working.   Documentaries have narrative requirements which tend to dictate how the component interviews will be edited.  Mad Magazine used to joke, in a satire on the New York Times famous slogan, "all the news thats fit to print," that it presented "all the news that fits the print"; and documentaries are the same.  The "clips" that will be cut out of the interviews will be those that fit the narrative requirements of the documentary.  This generally precludes any sustained attention to the individual character or context of the thinkers who are quoted.  Reflection on this issue led to the approach that I generally took in my work for Ideas after 1990 in which my subjects,  wherever possible, were presented one-at-a-time and in depth.

The participants in the series were as follows:

Part One: Paul Rutherford, James Curran, Anthony Smith, Stuart Hall, Lewis Lapham, Carman Cumming, Todd Gitlin

Part Two: Juan Somavia, Rohan Samarajiva, Herbert Schiller, Anthony Smith, Tom McPhail, Bill Harley, Barry Zwicker

Part Three: Edward Said, Stuart Hall, Noam Chomsky, James Aronson, Tom Kent

Part Four: Stuart Hall, Lewis Lapham, Gaye Tuchman, James Curran,Todd Gitlin, Carman Cumming, Paul Rutherford, Jeremy Wilson, Noam Chomsky

A transcript of the series is available on the Transcripts page of the site.