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The World News Prism: Changing Media for International Communication

William A. Hachten (1999). The World News Prism: Changing Media for International Communication (5th Edition). Ames: Iowa State University Press. 226 pages. ISBN 0-8138-2319-6.

Reviewed by Dr. Philip Robertson, School of Contemporary Communication, Central Queensland University, Australia

First published in 1981, the World News Prism is now in its fifth edition, which is probably one campaign too many for this old warhorse. Despite a new preface asserting that this introductory textbook still provides a useful overview of global news flows and patterns at the dawn of the new millennium, for me at least it remains strongly embedded in a specific time and place: Cold War America.

Hachten, of course, is not unaware of the problem. Indeed, his central metaphor argues: "As we understand and accept the optics of a prism for measuring the spectrum of light, so must we understand and accept transecting planes of different cultural and political traditions that refract divergent perceptions of our world" (p. xix). But from my perspective--writing from Australia, and teaching about and into media and journalism of the Asia-Pacific region--Hachten's prism remains firmly anchored at the fulcrum of U.S. news values, structures, and practices. At this imperial hub, the prism refracts mid-eighties, mid-Atlantic concerns, assumptions, and agendas that neither I nor my mostly Asian students share. And if contemporary theory has taught us nothing else, it has introduced a certain wariness towards simple binaries like developed/developing or East/West, and to grand narratives like "world news."

It does not help that the book specifically addresses an American undergraduate readership, assuming a body of cultural knowledge and ideological grounding that is simply not universal. Thus throughout the text "foreign" and "international" refers to us, and "us" refers to Americans. And while there may be some anecdotal interest in the fact that, according to "an annual poll of 700 editors," the biggest "foreign" news story of 1997 was the death of Lady Di (p.10), this nugget of information has no purchase on students from Hong Kong, for example, nor indeed anywhere else in Asia. Over 700 American editors may well have missed the handover of Hong Kong to China and the crash of the Thai Baht, but we did not.

Apart from its thorough-going Ameri-centrism, World News Prism is also skewed towards specific concerns of the author which appear, from this distance, somewhat eclectic: the media in Africa, and shortwave radio. By the same token, one glaring omission from the book is any discussion of successful public or mixed public/private broadcasting regimes, which remain the norm even in the developed world outside the U.S., including Japan, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific.

More seriously, although in updating for this edition an attempt has been made to grapple with the digital revolution in both news gathering and distribution--convergence of print, sound and image, mergers of telecommunication, news, and media industries, and new forms of "e-journalism"--the new material feels tacked on rather than integral to the book. Nevertheless, whether one places the digital revolution in a kind of "development" narrative of technological change or alternatively sees potential for radical overthrow of mass communication paradigms, the new media must be central rather than peripheral to any contemporary perspective--either utopian or dystopian--about "world news" and its place in our common global futures.

Finally, despite its best efforts the book appears outdated and out of touch with contemporary cultural theory. In particular, Cold War-era discourse that perpetuates a Manichean view of the world is today a matter for caution: terms like "global" impact (Chapter 5), "propaganda" (Chapter 7), and "Western" media (Chapter 11) cannot be so uncritically and innocently deployed these days. Surely both "cultural imperialism" and "communism" have already been consigned to the rubbish heap of rhetoric, along with other binaries of East and West, nation and race, local and global.

There is no need to argue them further: the world has become both more complex yet less centralized, globalized perhaps around one remaining superpower yet paradoxically more diverse and level, multivocal rather than monologic. Americans may need telling perhaps, but the rest of us foreigners are accustomed to reading according to where, when, how, and who is standing up and reporting. Hachten may celebrate satellite technology and CNN's coverage of Tienanmen Square and the Gulf War, but my students tend to find a more remarkable counter-narrative to multi-national control of their future profession in the fact that last year's coup in Fiji was first reported by Fijilive, a student Internet news site (http://www.fijilive.com). Today, in fact, there is no single world news prism, but a multitude of different light sources and spectators, producers and consumers.

About Philip Robertson

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