Charles Kenny has an excellent article this month titled "Revolution in a Box" in Foreign Policy magazine. He points out that:
By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one. Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.Today television is revolutionizing social behavior in poor countries as it did in the United States and other affluent countries decades ago.
Charles points out further that television can have an important impact in the promotion of peace:
television help solve a problem we've had since before Sumer and Elam battled it out around Basra in 2700 B.C. -- keeping countries from fighting each other? Maybe.Charles also draws attention to the negative impact of a narrow selection of television channels available to the public in poor nations, allowing those channels too often to be dominated by factions that seek to promote their narrow interests via biased broadcasting.
U.S. researchers who study violence on TV battle viciously themselves over whether it translates into more aggressive behavior in real life. But at least from a broader perspective, television might play a role in stemming the global threat of war. It isn't that TV reporting of death and destruction necessarily reduces support for wars already begun -- that's an argument that has raged over conflicts from Vietnam to the Iraq war. It is more that, by fostering a growing global cosmopolitanism, television might make war less attractive to begin with. Indeed, the idea that communications are central to building cross-cultural goodwill is an old one. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels suggested in the 19th century that railways were vital in rapidly cementing the union of the working class: "that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years," they wrote in The Communist Manifesto. If the Amtraks of the world can have such an impact, surely the Hallmark Channel can do even better.
UNESCO's Communications and Information Program is the lead in the United Nations System dealing with broadcasting, and UNESCO's mission of promoting peace and international understanding also demands that it attend to television as a powerful medium for good. Yet UNESCO does very little to promote responsible television broadcasting, not to promote the dissemination of television infrastructure or the use of television to provide a broad content linked to the needs and interests of poor people in developing nations.
Unfortunately, the United States withdrew from UNESCO in the 1980's and in so doing sent the organization into a financial crisis of major proportions -- a crisis from which the organization has not fully recovered to this day. UNESCO does not have the resources to adequately take advantage of the opportunities offered by the rapid penetration of television into the poor areas of the world.
The discussion in the past degenerated into futile areas of "The New World Information Order" rather than useful discussions of the role of mass media in fighting corruption, promoting peace, and disseminating knowledge. Perhaps now is the time to try again!