Freedom of Information and the Rise and Decline of American Power (Part 1)

For a special summer post, IO is releasing a four part series on the free flow of information doctrine. This is the first in the series.

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With little public notice, a foundation-stone of US global power has begun to crumble. The US free flow of information doctrine rose to dominance during World War II. Though repeatedly challenged, it enjoyed international supremacy for eighty years. Now, however, its hold is finally slipping. To clarify this vital change requires historical elaboration.

The US press became an advertiser-based big business only over the course of the 19th century.  As this occurred, the nation’s leading newspapers embraced a narrow libertarian reading of the protection they gained from the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated, simply, that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of the press. If, on one side, this did not preclude government press subsidies then, on the other side, neither did it disallow the possibility that municipalities or states or other communities might impose public responsibilities on the press. Publishers were eager to avail themselves of subsidies, such as massively reduced postal rates for transmission of newspapers through the mails. However, they roundly rejected community responsibilities. Thus, they insisted on an essentially self-serving interpretation: press freedom meant no government interference in their business and editorial affairs – leaving publishers free to pursue their own ownership, political and social class interests.   

Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, individual newspapers consolidated into increasingly extensive chains. During the 1930s came other salient industry developments.  Newspapers took cross-ownership interests in radio stations. Film studios began to provide regular sound newsreels for screening by the nation’s cinemas. Weekly magazines led by Time, Newsweek, and Life became highly successful news purveyors. Television was being rapidly innovated. All this signified that the working definition of “the press” had come to encompass the media system at large.[1]

By the outbreak of World War II, this multi-media US press – alongside the news agencies that gathered and distributed much of its content – became intent on (additional) global expansion.[2]  Trade groups were organized to accomplish this, under the banner of “freedom of information.” With sustained aid from high government officials, they insisted that “the free flow of information” should prevail throughout the postwar world. They held aloft the banner of the US press’s libertarian conception, which still made no room for any greater social responsibility.  “Freedom of information” now harbored two overriding objectives.[3] 

World War II marked a transformational shift in the global political economy, as the United States dislodged its former capitalist rivals and labored to assert a preponderance of global power against the Soviet Union.[4] Prior to the war, the US press and media industry possessed limited access to the colonial markets controlled by the leading powers and, indeed, to the markets of the leading powers themselves. Three European news agencies – British Reuters, the French Havas, and the German Wolf – had formed a longstanding cartel with which they dominated most of the world news market and attempted to limit inroads being made by the US’s United Press and Associated Press (AP) agencies.[5] US films and recordings enjoyed much greater market access, but they still faced restrictions.

The first aim of the free flow policy was to smooth the way for US media businesses – and, alongside them, US big business in general – to move into the previously closed-off markets of the weakened European empires. [Just a few years after the end of the Second World War, US corporate exports to, and investments in, former and current European “dependencies” (i.e., colonies) were already indeed astronomically greater than they had been just a decade earlier.[6]] US advertisers and media companies lobbied fiercely throughout the postwar years to enlarge the role of advertising in national media systems, and to expand export markets for all manner of US media products. 

The second anchor of the free flow policy was as an ideological weapon against the Soviet Union and, soon, Communist China, as well as the revolutionary nationalist states emerging throughout Asia and Africa – whose processes of construction either closed them to Western media or threatened to. “Freedom of information” portended unlicensed cultural and informational choice, and appeared to betoken a realm of creative freedom and personal expression – as contrasted to the sanctioned offerings produced under state socialism.[7] 

Under the free flow rubric US producers flooded global distribution and retail channels with commercial media products – as well as government propaganda, which US officials sometimes termed “public diplomacy.”[8] This trade was very lopsided. As a later study famously documented after television was added to this mix, the global traffic in video programming constituted a “one way street” extending outward from the U.S.[9] For a quarter of a century, a US hegemony over international communications existed over the non-socialist world and even beyond. This hegemony was not, however, uncontested.

During the late 1940s, an effort by US policymakers to enact a formal United Nations covenant to enshrine its libertarian principles was unsuccessful. The Soviet Union withheld support, in favor of a pact that would add a provision that the press not advocate fascism or race hatred or disseminate false information. Rival proposals by European states and by countries from the global South sought to impose various other responsibilities on the press; to take measures to equalize global distribution of printing presses and related resources; and to protect domestic news agencies from competition with the US giants – the Associated Press and the United Press.[10]  The UN covenant stalled.

Although it was not forceful enough to undermine US hegemony, a wide-ranging debate over cultural imbalances and disparities also erupted.[11] In postwar Western Europe, particularly in France, Left and Right political parties converged in heavily criticizing US media products.[12] As well, as a US publisher who served as a representative at the UN Conference on Freedom of Information in 1948 stated forthrightly, countries from the Global South “have a real fear of American cultural imperialism.”[13] An economist affiliated with the US Communist Party incorporated this idea in a formal study of imperialism three years later: “imperialism suppresses the national culture of the colonies and semicolonies. United States imperialism uses particular methods to impose the ideology of a moribund system on the people it exploits.  They are the motion pictures, comic strips, pulp magazines and other periodicals, radio, and high pressure advertising….The economic gains of United States imperialism have been matched by its cultural penetration.”[14] 

Redistributionist precepts were prevalent as well, both in Europe and throughout the Global South, as historian Diana Lemberg has shown – with respect to newsprint.  Postwar scarcity accentuated longstanding worldwide disparities; in 1950, with six percent of global population, the U.S. used 59% of the world’s newsprint supply. With this in mind, the question of press freedom looked sharply different – in France, Mexico, Egypt, Uruguay, India, and Italy.[15] How could there be a free press if there was no paper?

Opposition to US free flow policy resurfaced episodically – it’s an under-researched area of study. One expression of resistance occurred around the new technology of satellite communications.  As Lisa Parks shows, the US Mercury satellite system builders wanted to construct an earth station (one of eighteen worldwide) in Zanzibar in 1959-64 – against the will of Zanzibaris.  Political contestation, between a rising anticolonialism and an insistent US imperialism, itself colluding with a British empire in decline, formed the context.  Not only were local protests against the earth station by turns militant and large: 10,000 people demonstrated against the installation in June 1960.  The next month, delegates attending a Pan African Union meeting in Cairo “demanded that all military and satellite tracking stations be eliminated from Africa due to concerns about militarization.” With Zanzibar’s revolution and political independence in 1964, one of the first acts of its new president was to order the closure of the earth station.[16] 

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The United States, at the zenith of its global power, batted away calls for redistribution; overcame or sidestepped resistance to its libertarian policy; and hectored allies and adversaries alike with its free flow doctrine. But a more substantial adversary soon arose.


[1] Alfred M. Lee, The Daily Newspaper in America: The Evolution of a Social Instrument.  New York: Macmillan, 1937: 208-57; 314-75; Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Victor Pickard, America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[2] Joining them were US book publishers and, at the other end of the hierarchy of genres, comic book publishers.  John B. Hench, Books As Weapons:  Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010; Paul S. Hirsch, Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

[3] Herbert Schiller, Communications and Cultural Domination.  White Plains: International Arts & Sciences Press, 1976: 24-44.

[4] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

[5] Gene Allen, Mr. Associated Press: Kent Cooper and the Twentieth-Century World of News.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2023.

[6] Victor Perlo, American Imperialism.  New York: International Publishers, 1951: 102.

[7] Hirsch, Pulp Empire: 197-202.

[8] Justin Hart, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[9] Kaarle Nordenstreng and Tapio Varis, Television Traffic – A One-Way Street? A Survey and Analysis of the International Flow of Television Programme Material. UNESCO Reports and Papers on Mass Communication No. 70. Paris: UNESCO, 1974.

[10] Schiller, Communications and Cultural Domination: 24-38; Sam Lebovic, Free Press and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016: 148-54; Diana Lemberg, Barriers Down: 61; Allen, Mr. Associated Press: 231.

[11] Shinjoung Yeo is researching this, as an antecedent history of the movement for a New World Communication and Information Order.

[12] For the unexpectedly significant case of comic books, Hirsch, Pulp Empire: 202-6; and John A. Lent, Ed. Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comic Books Campaign.  Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

[13] Allen, Mr. Associated Press: 234, quoting “Sevellon Brown to U.S. Press: Don’t Highlight Task of World Freedom,” Editor & Publisher, April 17, 1948.

[14] Perlo, American Imperialism: 101-102.

[15] Lemberg, Barriers Down: 53, 59.

[16] Lisa Parks, “Global Networking and the Contrapuntal Mode: The Project Mercury Earth Station in Zanzibar, 1959-64,” ZMK 11, 2020: 46, 47 (quote).  Efforts to prevent militarization of the continent were a major focus of the burgeoning Pan-African movement of the early-mid 1960s.  Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa.  New York: Public Affairs Press, 2021. 

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