William A. Hachten
(1999). The World News Prism: Changing Media for International Communication (5th
Edition). Ames: Iowa State
University Press. 226 pages. ISBN 0-8138-2319-6.
Reviewed by Dr. Philip
Robertson, School of Contemporary Communication, Central Queensland University,
First published in 1981,
the World News Prism is now in its fifth edition, which is probably one campaign
too many for this old warhorse. Despite a new preface asserting that this introductory
textbook still provides a useful overview of global news flows and patterns at
the dawn of the new millennium, for me at least it remains strongly embedded in
a specific time and place: Cold War America.
Hachten, of course, is
not unaware of the problem. Indeed, his central metaphor argues: "As we understand
and accept the optics of a prism for measuring the spectrum of light, so must
we understand and accept transecting planes of different cultural and political
traditions that refract divergent perceptions of our world" (p. xix). But from
my perspective--writing from Australia, and teaching about and into media and
journalism of the Asia-Pacific region--Hachten's prism remains firmly anchored
at the fulcrum of U.S. news values, structures, and practices. At this imperial
hub, the prism refracts mid-eighties, mid-Atlantic concerns, assumptions, and
agendas that neither I nor my mostly Asian students share. And if contemporary
theory has taught us nothing else, it has introduced a certain wariness towards
simple binaries like developed/developing or East/West, and to grand narratives
like "world news."
It does not help that
the book specifically addresses an American undergraduate readership, assuming
a body of cultural knowledge and ideological grounding that is simply not universal.
Thus throughout the text "foreign" and "international" refers to us, and "us"
refers to Americans. And while there may be some anecdotal interest in the fact
that, according to "an annual poll of 700 editors," the biggest "foreign" news
story of 1997 was the death of Lady Di (p.10), this nugget of information has
no purchase on students from Hong Kong, for example, nor indeed anywhere else
in Asia. Over 700 American editors may well have missed the handover of Hong Kong
to China and the crash of the Thai Baht, but we did not.
Apart from its thorough-going
Ameri-centrism, World News Prism is also skewed towards specific concerns of the
author which appear, from this distance, somewhat eclectic: the media in Africa,
and shortwave radio. By the same token, one glaring omission from the book is
any discussion of successful public or mixed public/private broadcasting regimes,
which remain the norm even in the developed world outside the U.S., including
Japan, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific.
More seriously, although
in updating for this edition an attempt has been made to grapple with the digital
revolution in both news gathering and distribution--convergence of print, sound
and image, mergers of telecommunication, news, and media industries, and new forms
of "e-journalism"--the new material feels tacked on rather than integral to the
book. Nevertheless, whether one places the digital revolution in a kind of "development"
narrative of technological change or alternatively sees potential for radical
overthrow of mass communication paradigms, the new media must be central rather
than peripheral to any contemporary perspective--either utopian or dystopian--about
"world news" and its place in our common global futures.
Finally, despite its best
efforts the book appears outdated and out of touch with contemporary cultural
theory. In particular, Cold War-era discourse that perpetuates a Manichean view
of the world is today a matter for caution: terms like "global" impact (Chapter
5), "propaganda" (Chapter 7), and "Western" media (Chapter 11) cannot be so uncritically
and innocently deployed these days. Surely both "cultural imperialism" and "communism"
have already been consigned to the rubbish heap of rhetoric, along with other
binaries of East and West, nation and race, local and global.
There is no need to argue
them further: the world has become both more complex yet less centralized, globalized
perhaps around one remaining superpower yet paradoxically more diverse and level,
multivocal rather than monologic. Americans may need telling perhaps, but the
rest of us foreigners are accustomed to reading according to where, when, how,
and who is standing up and reporting. Hachten may celebrate satellite technology
and CNN's coverage of Tienanmen Square and the Gulf War, but my students tend
to find a more remarkable counter-narrative to multi-national control of their
future profession in the fact that last year's coup in Fiji was first reported
by Fijilive, a student Internet news site (http://www.fijilive.com). Today, in
fact, there is no single world news prism, but a multitude of different light
sources and spectators, producers and consumers. TBS