The Multinational Monitor



The Politics of Information

An interview with Stan Swinton, Vice-President and Director of World Services, Associated Press

Nothing gets the press going better than a good fight-particularly when it's one of the combatants. In the past few years, the major organs of the Western press have displayed an unusual degree of unanimity in condemning the calls, coming primarily from the less developed nations, for a "new world information order."

The most active battleground for this contest has been the meetings, seminars and reports of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which has been studying the politics of

Third World nations, and some analysts in the U.S. and Europe, have charged that what the Western news agencies define as a "free flow of information" is in reality a "one way flow"-with the Western media dominating the transmission of Third World events to the West, and imposing Western cultural values.

UNESCO's own investigation of the issue, published in February 1980 under the title Many Voices, One World, agreed with this analysis, writing that: "The grievances of the Third World are quantitative, arising from the evident fact that coverage of the developing areas in the media of the developed countries is inadequate; and on the other hand qualitative, in that the news actually published, sometimes gives a highly skewed picture of realities. "

At its 21st General Session in Belgrade this past fall, UNESCO debated the report, but took no action beyond establishing an international clearinghouse to foster the development of. indigenous media in the Third World.

In its analysis of the global communication system, UNESCO emphasized the vital role of the five major international news agencies: Tass, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, United Press International, and the Associated Press. UNESCO studies have shown that the wires not only dominate the flow of news from the developing to the developed world, but are the primary source of news between developing nations themselves.

Recently, the Multinational Monitor spoke with Stan Swinton, vice-president and director of world. services for AP. According to UNESCO figures, the AP sends out more words per day (17 million) than any other news service. It services over 1,300 newspapers, 3,400 broadcasters and 1,000 foreign subscribers. It has 62 foreign bureaus and 559 foreign correspondents.

Multinational Monitor: I can't recall an issue on which the press has displayed such unanimity as the calls for a new information order and the proceedings. Paper after paper has editorialized against it, Mr. O Regan of the AP was quoted in the newspaper as calling the charges levied against the Western press "absurd. " Why has the press reacted so strongly?

Stan Swinton:First let's get back to what the issue is. There's no specific definition of what the new world information order is. Does it mean that you throw out the baby with the bathwater, that you throw out the information you know now and start all over again. Does it mean in developing countries that you only write the good news when the dam is built you say the dam is built, if the dam falls down and drowns a thousand people, you don't run that.

You can't start off saying 'why is everybody against it?' First of all, there are a lot of people that aren't against it, there's a lot of papers in the world that say there has to be a rethink. The American press, almost universally, has said, yes we have to do better on this, we have to cover the Third World better, but not within a framework where they tell us the ground rules on coverage.

Remember, there are two systems of journalism in the world, and I don't think it's possible for them to get together. There's the Soviet concept; the press is a tool of the government, it works for the government, its employees are government servants. There's the Western concept that the press... pinpricks, it invigorates to find out what goes wrong. Today the UNESCO is trying to bring together the way the Soviet papers are run and the Western way and I just don't think in the long run you can bring these two together because there's a fundamentally different perception of journalism.

Monitor: You mentioned before that the new information order hasn't really been defined, but there's a coherency to the basic argument: that is, the Western press, the Western media-as well as advertising and so forth-instead of the free -flow, provide a one-way flow of information. And there are those that suggest that the coverage of UNESCO itself bears this out, bears out how difficult it has been for the Third World to get its side across into American papers on this whole debate.

Swinton: One, the rhetoric, the junk food of the whole thing is the rhetoric.

Chat the Western press only covers earthquakes, revolutions, coup d'etats. That they don't cover economic development. Well, here are some figures ...from a study that I made of AP. Economic news in my study was 22.8 percent, as against 5.6 for [violence, revolutions, coup d'etats] . Foreign relations, as they relate to that country in their dealings with other countries, 23 percent I had. In other words, it just simply isn't true that all we cover is the earthquakes.

When you're talking about the Third World and their criticism, I think you cannot make a valid case quantitatively... Qualitatively I think certainly there has been a case and there was a major case 10 or 15 years ago when many of the correspondents were not backgrounded in the areas, didn't speak the languages, didn't have the cultural background, area studies. That has changed dramatically.

Monitor:What relationship do you see now between the coverage of the Third World and development there? How would you assess the coverage now?

Swinton:It's very hard for people to make value judgments unless they see the coverage. We have 1,200 word a minute wires and they carry hundreds of stories from Africa that perhaps no paper in the United States uses. Let me go back on this coverage thing to another point. England is a monoethnic country; France is a monoethnic country, Norway, Japan; so foreign news that makes the headlines, pretty much makes the headlines all over that country. The United States is a multiethnic country ...a story from Mexico will get used all throughout the Southwest. A story from Poland will get used in Akron and Detroit and Chicago, and that's because the readers in those papers want it and the circulation's in those papers go down if they don't print it and up if they do. Most of the people like the Italians, or the Yugoslavs, or the Poles, came 30 years ago, 50 years ago, you've got your new immigration from Vietnam and Korea and Cuba, but the great bulk didn't come from what are now Third World countries. How many Togolese Americans are there in a newspaper's circulation or even Nigerian Americans? The American blacks came over so long ago, they identify with Africa, but not with one country in Africa.

Monitor:How does that affect the balance of news in terms of the percentages that you laid out before. You're sending out that stuff, but is it being used?

Swinton: What happens is that you'll have it from all the countries, but it will appear in the papers where their readership has a greater identification. Now a big story, like the Iran-Iraqi thing, or like Salvadore, that will get used everywhere. But a story about the culture, the new writers from Latin America that haven't been translated from Spanish into English yet, primarily-unless it's an extremely well-written story-that'll get used in an area where there is some identification.

Another thing is, as the cost of newsprint goes up, many papers have cut their news hole .... Alright, you've got 153 countries, you've got maybe a column and a half or two columns to cover all of those, you've got an ethnic interest in your immediate area, you've got major stories that have to be covered, and almost inevitably the meaningful cultural story that gives you a better understanding of what it's like to live in the Third World, what it is like to be without electricity, that stuff gets short shrift except in the biggest papers which have enough space to run it.

Monitor:What about Western reporters themselves. Do you think there's any kind of world view that colors their reporting?

Swinton: I think the Western reporter, with a few aberrations, desperately wants to be objective. That's why you have gatekeepers to help the reporter be [objective] , the copy reader and so on. However, I think anyone, any journalist is essentially subjective. It's where you were born, where you grew up, what your religion is, what your color is. And even if you try to wipe these out of your mind, some of it surfaces ...There's also an equal problem, which you never hear about, when the Third World reporters come into the states. I've read their stories when they go back and it's all the robberies on 42nd street and the hookers, and just as the Western reporter will overdue the negatives, that the buildings haven't been painted, that the stoplights don't work, they'll come here and do the same thing.

Monitor:One of the major criticisms of the o agencies has been -and this has been talked about in Columbia Journalism Review articles on Iran, UNESCO has talked about it--is a tendency to oversimplify, to place labels on groups.

Swinton:: think that's a weakness. Left-leaning and so on. I think part of it is the pressure of space. It's a lot less common now, but it's a continuing problem. I do think that frequently the paragraph or two that explains something are the ones the editor will strike out, because he's got to cut something ... and a lot of it is sloppiness. .

Monitor:Is sloppiness really the cause? _ Or is that view a dividing of the world?

Swinton:No, I don't think it's that. It's nothing that subtle. You've got 300-400 words to say something, you want to say what's happening and if you say pro-this or that you save yourself 40 or 50 words.

Monitor:What do you think the impact of that compression is on the public that's reading it, that's only getting that one paragraph. Are we polarizing the world in the way we present the news?

Swinton:Well, you can certainly make that argument. I think probably the impact will be minimal. If they're deeply interested in the subject they'll probably go into it more deeply and try to find out something on it; if they're not interested whether it's pro or anti wouldn't...

Monitor:But it creates that general background...

Swinton:I think it's bad, and I fully agree. It may well polarize. It's essentially a question of space, not editorial slanting of any kind.

Monitor:How are the language decisions made? At what level is the decision made that a government is left-leaning or 'right wing?

SwintonNo decision is made for the reporter in the field. No, that would come in from the field. And you get the reporters talking to each other, because it will suddenly spurt up in the copy of the New York Times and the Washington Post and suddenly everybody will have so and so being [a leftist or rightwing].

Monitor:Are there situations where New York will say we want more stories on this, you're not paying enough attention to, say, life at the village level? SWINTON-I'd say general guidance in the last two or three years. If something like gun control becomes big in the states and you're out in Jakarta, you may not know it. In other words, things that are of interest to the American audience. MONITOR-How is AP itself governed?

SwintonIt's a non-profit cooperative. It's owned by the papers. It has a Board of Editors of 18 publishers and two broadcast people. Management is picked by the Board of Directors and on a day by day basis, it's run by management.

Monitor: Are papers, all members equal?



SwintonNo. It used to be the foreign papers were members. I think it was around 1940, 1945 the laws for cooperatives in the United States were changed, so that if you were not domiciled in the United States you could not be a member of a U.S. cooperative. So the papers outside the United States are subscribers and do not have voting privileges. Papers inside the United States do.

Monitor:What are the major difficulties you face in covering the Third World?

Swinton:One: access. There are still some countries where it's difficult to get visas. More and more you can persuade a country that it's very good for their problems to be known around the world, but certain governments.. .When you get in the country there's overt and covert censorship. Overt censorship would be simply they cut up your copy when you file it... that doesn't happen very much anymore. Covert censorship is a different thing. And that is if you go to a country where the government controls the radio, controls the newspaper, and you're trying to find out what's the opposition saying, what's the real picture, it's very hard to do.

But in many of these countries, it's the simple fact that in many of the small Third World countries that their educated elite who are running a country-there are very few of them. You go beneath the minister and the sub minister doesn't even know what's going on. These guys, many of them work 20 hours a day, and they just simply don't have the time to see a reporter and spend two hours explaining `these are our problems.'

Monitor:What kinds of changes on the part of the governments do you think would facilitate coverage of the Third World?

Swinton:One, press rates: simply there would be more written from these countries if it wasn't so extremely expensive to send it out. During the Iraqi-Iran thing, for example, there were just huge communication bills because you have to phone, dictate, there are no telexes, hundreds of thousands of dollars. ..usually the rates are about three times as high as in the developed countries. Another thing is that the Minister of Information, in most countries is very low on the cabinet. hierarchy, so they give it to some rinkydink politician who's somebody's brother-in-law, they make him Minister of Information. Instead of getting someone who knows communications, who knows the importance of communications, you get somebody who wants to send presents to the correspondents, which the correspondents return, and they try to co-opt them, and if a correspondent can't be co-opted they expel him.

Monitor:What's your, or the AP's definition of news? Do you see it as a commodity you have to sell to your subscribers?

Swinton:No. Our job is to cover what's happening and we serve people from the extreme right to the communist countries. Just give them the facts, just give them the basis on which to make their value judgments; not try to make their value judgments for them.

Monitor:But many, many analysts have argued-the MacBride Commission [of UNESCO] has argued-that by commercializing events, by picking which event to cover you are in effect making a value judgment at that point.

Swinton:I mentioned the high speed wires. We're covering just about everything. It's what the editors pick to run.

Monitor:You say we cover everything, but obviously you can't cover everything. Do you cover everything within a certain definition of news?

Swinton:No, anything that you think will be intellectually or emotionally or anything else, interesting to the reader.

Monitor:One last question. It's been suggested that the wire services, because of their visibility are really taking the brunt for a lot of other things, for the entire, what is considered, Western cultural invasion into the developing world: broadcasting, advertising. Do you think that's fair?

Swinton:I think it is. But I think it is much more profound. It goes into movies, the advertising, as you say, television-the situation comedies. The news agencies, I think, have borne the brunt on it. On the other hand, I don't think that's too bad a thing. It's made us clean up our act. I think the news agencies have been hit by the spearhead of the thing, but it's spreading to other areas and the most profound reaction will come on [attempts to regulate] transborder data flow. All of the international organizations have to be sensitized to this because it seems to me the biggest thing so far in the century has been the east-west conflict; it seems to me in the next century it's going to be north-south, the haves and the have nots.

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