Reviewed by Daniel Platt (University of Connecticut)
Published on Jhistory (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Heidi Tworek (University of British Columbia)
Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1945-1969
On April 30, 1939, NBC delivered its first regularly scheduled television broadcast by covering Franklin Roosevelt’s address at the New York World’s Fair, therein inaugurating a new era in mass communications and forging an enduring link between politics and televised media. In Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946–69, James Schwoch probes one particular facet of that link, exploring how postwar political conditions drove American policymakers, businessmen, academics, and philanthropists to construct a network for the worldwide distribution of live television content in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Seeking to contribute to scholars’ understandings of globalization and Cold War foreign policy and to remind contemporary political actors of the importance of America’s image abroad, Schwoch, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, argues that global television was the ad hoc product of a discourse that began as a concern for security amidst growing East-West tensions in the 1940s and 1950s but transformed in the 1960s into a rhetoric of one-world citizenship.
That transformation is charted primarily in the book’s first four chapters, which proceed episodically through several communications policy challenges of the postwar period, starting with the debate among victorious Allied powers over how to rebuild Germany’s broadcasting capabilities. Because it had been expelled from the International Telecommunications Union in 1945, choices about how many frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum to allocate to Germany fell to the occupying forces. Drawing on documents from the State Department and the Public Records Office of the United Kingdom, Schwoch contends that over the course of the 1950s, French and British policymakers shifted from a nationalist orientation, favoring the allocation of few frequencies to West Germany in the interest of limiting the country’s ability to disseminate propaganda ever again, to joining the United States in a more internationalist outlook that saw German broadcasting as “a strong counterbalance preventing, or discouraging, the Soviet-sourced” flow of media across the Iron Curtain (p. 41). As West Europeans standardized television programming models and distribution devices across the Continent in the 1950s in order to offset communist radio and television, American policymakers prepared for the new era of public diplomacy by founding the United States Information Agency in 1953 to coordinate international propaganda and manage the nation’s image abroad. Sifting through the archives of the Ford Foundation, whose officers advised the Eisenhower administration on information policy in the late 1950s and which continued to direct communications research in subsequent decades, Schwoch argues that media experts gradually abandoned East-West rhetoric and by the 1966 Ford Bellagio Conference in Italy had adopted a language of globalization that posited broad access to television as a necessary condition of post-national world citizenship.
While these discursive changes were taking place within academic and intellectual circles, American state officials were partnering with private investors to build a media infrastructure that would allow the country to control and improve its image around the world. It is this policy and technology narrative that is considered in the book’s final four chapters. Drawing on documents in the National Archives and several presidential libraries, Schwoch details how the conviction that seeing the benefits of consumer culture would foster pro-capitalist sentiments in neutral or communist countries, as well as the fear that the Soviet Union’s success in space would earn it international recognition as the more scientifically advanced society, motivated Congress to create and fund the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) in 1962. Influenced by emerging discourse of world citizenship, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations pushed COMSAT and INTELSAT, a related consortium of international satellite corporations, to make American broadcasting available to as many people as possible via satellite relays. This process culminated in the global telecasting of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the first event to be seen live on television in virtually every country--a simultaneous triumph for American cultural diplomacy and the concept of one-worldism.
Schwoch concludes his study by mourning that moment’s passing, claiming that hopes of globalization have been supplanted in the twenty-first century by the anxieties of globophobia. He blames the second Bush administration for ignoring new media and failing to protect America’s international reputation, a lamentation that may be based more on personal experience than solid archival research--Schwoch is a dean at Northwestern’s Qatar campus--and that seems to reduce real errors in political leadership to problems of image-management. A dubious epilogue is not Global TV’s only blemish. Besides its overuse of block quoting and its winding detours into technical and unrelated narratives, such as the impact of high-altitude nuclear testing on satellite functioning, Global TV offers only cursory answers to the most significant questions its argument raises: did the achievement of global television, realized in the Apollo 11 broadcast, tangibly shape the second half of the Cold War, and was the discourse of world citizenship merely Americanization in disguise? Addressing these issues would require additional research into international viewership as well as how far global television networks shared live content rather than simply exported American feeds. Such work would yield a more complete portrait of the relationship among media, politics, and nationalism and post-nationalism during the Cold War.
That said, Global TV does the valuable job of narrating a dense and technical history, and its argument has important implications for scholars of American journalism. Schwoch’s central insight is that constructing global television was a remarkably collaborative and disjointed endeavor, one that brought together state officials, businessmen, academics, philanthropists and, ultimately, broadcasters. While some journalists thus adopted a more adversarial posture in the 1960s and 1970s, asserting their power as independent watchdogs and evaluators of government, the larger news industry was, on one level, becoming more intertwined with the state, relying on public-private partnerships like COMSAT for access to international television content. The challenge going forward may be to incorporate this legacy of the government’s dual identity as both a subject and a shaper of broadcast news coverage into the larger history of journalism and political culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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Daniel Platt. Review of Schwoch, James, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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