I would be surprised if in future decades, people did not say that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first was the period in which the shape of the modern world was determined, and that two primary forces did most of the shaping: the spread of capitalism and free market economies, and the invention of new technologies of communication.
We live as never before in an interdependent and integrated world economy. Nearly half of the revenues of the S&P 500 corporations are generated from business conducted outside the United States; developing countries provide roughly half of the manufactured goods bought by developed countries (up from 14 percent in 1987); approximately half of the US government’s debt is in foreign hands; and, on a more personal scale, a significant portion of everyone’s retirement fund is invested in foreign enterprises. The days have passed when America’s demand for energy in the world market was so large, relative to other nations, that it determined the price of oil we consume.
At the same time, the ability to communicate and to have access to information, knowledge, and opinion has taken a giant leap forward. Billions of people across the planet have some degree of access to the Internet. Global media outlets are proliferating, with newer entrants such as Al Jazeera, CCTV, and France 24 joining traditional international institutions such as the BBC and CNN. Meanwhile, the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reuters are garnering tens of millions of monthly visitors. When The Associated Press publishes an article it can reach several billion people.
The consequences of globalization are both good and bad. Certainly, the most notable benefit is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of lives destined for poverty and sickness, and diffusing basic wealth and well-being. This is, by any measure, a great good. We also have practical reasons for being happy about it as well: Our prospects for a full recovery from the Great Recession over the next five to ten years depend significantly on the creation of wealth in emerging economies, to make up for the decline in demand from the American consumer. And the positive facets of globalization are far more extensive than these economic benefits, affecting as they do our broader appreciation of the vast variety and intrinsic interest of the human condition. Without this appreciation, we are more susceptible to distorted ideas about what other people are like and more apt to remain dangerously uninformed about, for instance, what the Chinese are thinking, or what is driving young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Engaging the world remedies this ignorance.
We also know that globalization does not spread its consequences only benignly. We face a host of problematic and vexing issues, too, as a result of globalization. Many are notorious: the rise of violent extremism among populations threatened by modernity; the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change; the depletion of the earth’s natural resources; the degradation of the environment; the growing divide between rich and poor; and the list continues.
To realize the enormous positive potential of globalization—to channel it, regulate it, and encourage it in the right ways and to grapple with its manifold problems—will require many things. Among the most important is ensuring that the world has the institutions necessary to accomplish what we need. Institutions—political and civil—are central to the structure of any society, including an emerging global society.
Two such institutions are the university and the press. Both are concerned with providing objective and accurate information, ideas, and analyses that we need in order to understand and act in our world. The press is more concerned with grasping the here and now, the current state of things. We, in universities, generally are more concerned with taking our time and trying to see matters in a larger context. Obviously, there are differences, but the journalist and the scholar are more similar than not, and, importantly, are both motivated by a desire to serve the public good according to certain professional standards.
This comparison helps to highlight certain features of the press that are important and relevant to the new world. In the United States, the Supreme Court has played a major role in articulating the special role a free press can play, focusing primarily on political and social benefits. The press is part of the marketplace of ideas through which we seek to understand our world and find truth. It also serves the needs of citizens in exercising their sovereign responsibilities. It does this by exposing the misdeeds and errors of government, and by informing us more generally about the issues we must face and resolve. Collectively, the press is our national public forum.