I was fortunate yesterday to attend the launch of a report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), CIMA has assessed U.S. efforts to support media development worldwide. The launch was for its augural report, “Empowering Independent Media: U.S. Efforts to Foster Free and Independent News Media Around the World.”
Held in the Russell Senate office building, and with opening remarks by Senator Richard Lugar and Congressman Adam Schiff, the launch meeting discussed efforts to expand U.S. government support for free speech in the service of economic and political development. The event was well attended by members of media related government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and others. The body of the program comprised presentations by some of those who helped produce the CIMA report.
The report itself includes a significant improvement on previous estimates of how much money is spent by the United States on media development programs globally (over $142 million in 2006), and also a diagnosis of challenges and opportunities facing those who do this work. The report is a thoughtful sort of policy research aiming to focus energies in productive directions and to help advocate for funding. And it makes a compelling case.
What struck me most about the session, however, is reflected in the wise old philosopher’s exclamation, “déjà vu all over again!” At one point a presenter stated that the real commencement of such work began following the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent growing awareness of the relationship between free media and economic growth. The report itself states, “Scholars and other experts have increasingly recognized the role of independent media in fostering democracy and development.” Well, maybe among other experts. Academic development specialists have long studied these matters. Dedicated individuals possessing copious field experience starting over forty years ago analyzed the interdependence of media and economic development at length, systematically, and in great detail. This was during the heyday of Modernization Theory in which political scientists, sociologists, and media analysts including some former journalists, undertook the great effort of understanding and facilitating development, and media development, among the rapidly growing family of Third World nations following WWII.
I don’t wish to suggest that policymakers need regularly to be reading academic tombs. In the case of modernization theory, this body of work has largely lain fallow since the Vietnam War and since failures confronting the first wave of national development efforts were acknowledged in the 1970s. And this theory had its own problems. But the literature represents a wellspring of knowledge that could be mined if only to help avoid repeating early mistakes. And, there are still scholars knowledgeable in such matters including familiarity with the complex issues raised in this report. I’m not in any way criticizing the excellent CIMA report, but I can’t help but think that this sort of policy research and the academic scholarship of development specialists could more usefully complement one another than they usually do today. A great gap exists between academic study and policy research, for whatever historical reasons, at a loss for both. Perhaps it is time for a rapprochement from which both could benefit.