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Media Development and the Theory - Practice Gap

Tom Jacobson's picture

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.


Submitted by rushda on
Tom, the role of the media is a double edged sword. No? As long as it complements the policy makers, they seem to be very happy about it. They would want to liberate the media of every country they possibly come in contact with. This goes in particular for the US policy makers. They want a free media everywhere in the world, yet the freedom comes with the condition: do not be critical of the West. While writing a research paper on Pakistan's elections of 2008, I was stuck by the US policy makers complementing their recommendations of strengthening the freedm of the media movement in the country. It was constantly cited as an example as a US policy decision that allowed the citizens to express themselves freely and choose wisely. The sucessful democratic experiment of Pakistan was largely understood as the result of the US policy of protecting the freedom of the media. At the same time however, the policy makers have been going on and on and on on the percolation of the Taliban in the media in Pakistan, that is making the Pakistani intelligentsia hostile to the US intervention in the country. The reccomendations of the US policy makers have on treating hostile media as terrorists. The liberated media in Pakistan has been following the US objective of seeking political liberlization. At the same time however, they are also seeking economic liberalization and freedom from US control. While the US has been appreciative of the former, it is just not ready for the latter. It just makes me apprehensive of the possible relation the state can possibly have with the media. They will have to fall within the parameters set by Foucault -- they can not do without each other and they can not do with each other; they need to supplement and complement each other and they need to overpower each other.

Submitted by Tom on
Dear Rushda. As you say, 'It just makes me apprehensive of the possible relation the state can possibly have with the media.' This difficult to disagree with. After all, the standard Western styled 'libertarian' theory of the democratic press would agree with you. The press has historically been mistrustful of government, in principle, and vice versa. In the case of projects like CIMA funded through the bipartisan NED, the idea is, I believe, to support work once or twice removed from the state, including media projects. How effectively, this might insulate such projects from a press/media perspective embodying American tendencies in foreign policy more generally, or embodying an increasingly commercialized media culture, does remain a complicated question in which many media scholars as well as policymakers are no doubt concerned. For my own part, I hope we can find a way around Foucault¹s suggestion that the press and state are eternally enjoined in illegitimate conjugation. An analysis is needed that recognizes tendencies for state and commerce to capture the press and then suggests models by which such influences can be minimized. Best, Tom.

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