Persuading the Chinese that it is a mistake to choose a closed society may not be easy. Up to this point in our history, the dialogue about such matters has generally been about human rights. Clearly, the concept of human rights has been one of the great advances in human civilization. But one of the key aspects of globalization is that, because all of us are directly and adversely affected by the suppression of information in any one nation, we have additional reasons for objecting to censorship, beyond our noble concern for human rights.
Are we ready and able to make the case to the Chinese that they will be better off if they choose a path of openness and an independent press? Arguments about truth, democratic self-governance, and tolerance will be difficult to develop persuasively for China. But China believes in the national benefits of a free-market economic system. A more effective argument, then, may be that openness over time may be linked to sustained economic growth. The argument might go like this: Right now you are able to grow economically, at a rate never before witnessed in human history, because you have a natural base in manufacturing and exporting goods, which does not require a high level of societal creativity and innovation. At some point, however, you are going to lose that advantage, and your success will then depend upon a culture and social character that thrives on independent thinking and creativity. There is, moreover, a direct link between the commitment to a vigorous free press (as well as free speech) and that kind of character. You would be wise to begin to cultivate that shift.
I have to admit that we have precious little study, analysis, and data to support such an argument, even though I believe it. It is a different tack from the one we have successfully employed in this country to develop our own commitment to a free press. We would be wise to expand our understanding of freedom of the press and its relation to all the things we value—including a vibrant economy—to make a stronger case for openness in the global debate.
Beyond control and censorship is another question: What do we need to do to make sure we’re getting the information and ideas—the quality as well as the amount—we need for dealing with this new global society? How do we build up our capacity to produce the journalism we need?
Before we get to that, some quick observations:
The first is somewhat obvious: there has been a significant and distressing contraction in the coverage of the world by the American press since the onset of the financial crisis that has overwhelmed the profession. Along with the inevitable shrinkage of newsrooms has come the elimination of foreign bureaus and foreign correspondents. Reporting of foreign news is, naturally, down as well. At the moment when we need a great expansion of such journalism, there’s a great contraction.
Second, a parallel development is the rise of national media in other nations designed to have a global presence. BBC World News and BBC World Service have been and are leaders here, but new entrants are coming into the arena— notable examples being Al Jazeera of Qatar, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV of China, and France 24.
Third, it is a reasonably debatable question whether the proliferation of expression that has arrived via the Internet will naturally provide the kind and quality of information we need in a globalized world. People often point to the rise of “citizen journalists” as an offset to the declining fortunes of the traditional press. I believe this is not an even exchange, that journalistic institutions matter, and, therefore we will need to do more than adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the fate of the press.
Fourth, while philanthropy and nonprofit models add a great deal to the journalistic mix, the sustainable institutions they create are unlikely to reach the scale that the world needs.
But neither will the free market. The press, as we have come to define its role in public life, is a public good, and public goods are never completely realized in a free-market environment. I have argued in the past that as the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, we need a greater commitment of public funding for the press so that US newsgathering operations may successfully establish a broader global reach and footprint.