Tehranian, Majid. Global Communication and World Politics: Domination, Development and Discourse. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.
Reviewed by Ralph D. Berenger, the American University in Cairo
The international waters through which global communicators sail is fraught with dangers: differing concepts of what is news; competing notions of public and corporate control of the airwaves; dizzying arrays of governmental regulations and, in some cases, tampering; and, perhaps most importantly, a widening understanding gap between Eastern and Western cultures. Lucky is the reader who has Majid Tehranian in the map room.
In a slim (212 pages) volume, Tehranian tackles the big issues in international communications—world media systems and global information flows—then goes beyond the accepted communications literature to merge his considerable understanding of world political systems and their interplay (and in some cases clash) with global communications interests. The book is remarkably cross-disciplinary in its scope and mission, which is to find commonalties between cultures and communications systems.
While many popular texts on global communications (William Hachten, Robert Stevenson, and Robert McChesney and Edward Herman, among others) offer a western media perspective with varying degrees of noblesse oblige, sympathy or patronization of the developing world's communications systems, Tehranian maps out a refreshing view that attempts to synthesize disparate viewpoints from which the reader derives understanding.
In the first place, the book is more an anthology than an apologia for global communications, with only the first chapter an original tract. The other chapters have been published originally elsewhere but polished up for this book. Some critics might consider this collection of previously published pieces a major weakness of this tome. Others will view it as a strength. The reader will also a appreciate the lack of normative anti-globalization values espoused by many current international communications authors.
Tehranian does not chart a straight course for the reader with chapters that expand on a central idea or concept in a three-part narrative form. Rather, he navigates through, rather than around, many barrier reefs in eight chapters, each standing independent of the others, and in the end arrives at a satisfying philosophical and cogent conclusion.
He demonstrates a solid understanding of political meta-themes that drive nations to seek peace, prosperity, power, and prestige. On the last point he speculates that most world governments need the latter to accomplish any of the former. That is where transnational communications enters the picture, he said. In fact nations of all sizes spend considerable time and energy building their international prestige, some heavy-handily through propaganda, some at the expense of internal social or development.
Tehranian does a skillful job integrating the large theories of communications and political development, including in his models for the press and the notion of communitarianism, which is gaining support in a war-weary and fractionalized world.
Of particular interest and importance, given today's headlines from the Middle East, are two chapters about the region for Western readers. In the "Hostages to History" chapter, Tehranian reviews the rise of militant Islam as a response to western domination of cultural dissemination (and traces this uncomfortable relationship back to the crusades in the Holy Land). He knows from what he speaks. For a time in the turbulent 1970s, Tehranian was in the eye of the hurricane as director of the Iran Communications and Development Institute in Tehran.
In his worldview, Tehranian sees the Middle East and the West as an active crossroads of miscommunication and, he opines, that was purposely designed to be that way. He writes of a "fourfold vicious cycle of misunderstanding: western misunderstandings of Islam, Muslim misunderstandings of the West, westerners' misunderstanding of the West, and Muslims' misunderstandings of Islam. The current backlash against the western export of culture through satellite is seen as "just another phase in the evolution of Islam," he suggests.
Nations, however, are just learning how to harness the power of transitional media (broadcasting and narrowcasting), which Tehranian sees as great instruments to facilitate international understanding and reconciliation.
In a second Middle East-oriented chapter, "Deafening Dissonance," Tehranian uses as a case study the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80 as a turning point in the battle for power by the powerless for political purposes. That was, in his memory, the first time a "media event" was used specifically to further national interests. The lesson unlearned in the Middle East was the lasting imaging imprinted on Western minds of the short-term gains made by the Iranian Revolution. One wonders, while reading about the event, how many years it will take for the West to erase the images coming from Israel and Palestine today; or from Afghanistan and Baghdad, or the latest video of Osama bin Laden on Al-Jazeera. Those interested in frame theory would find this chapter particularly beneficial.
Woven throughout the rest of the chapters are blends of theoretical constructs from mass communications, political science, economics, and sociology as "explainers" of behavior for various international players. In that regard, the book should be appreciated by graduate students seeking a broader understanding of how the theories can arrive at a praxis with professional training and experience. The book would be ideal supplemental reading for international communications, development, or political communications seminars for graduate students or advanced undergraduates who are interested in the Middle East.
Tehranian is professor of international communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research