UNESCO and the Media

C. Anthony Giffard

UNESCO and the Media is a book which will tell you almost everything you might ever have wanted to know about the ways in which the American press characterized the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in late 1984. In the study, Giffard essentially uses the results of a content analysis of more than 4,000 television and newspaper reports, editorials, and editorial page columns focused on the UNESCO withdrawal debates between 1983 and 1987 to raise issues about freedom of the press in the U.S.

Giffard paints a bleak picture of the American press tied into symbiotic relationships with State Department spokespeople and special interest groups working to prepare the public to accept the U.S. position. Not that a more informed public would inevitably have changed the course of events, but, according to Giffard, it might have demanded that the foreign policy decision-makers, i.e., the executive branch of the Reagan administration, be somewhat more accountable to their diverse constituencies.

The book opens with a chapter outlining UNESCO's structure, history, mission, and programs in which Giffard tries to provide "another" perspective by indicating what could have been reported to the American public to "balance the overwhelmingly negative image that was, in fact, projected" (p. xxi). This is followed in the next chapter by a discussion of the New World Information and Communication Order in which the author traces the development of the concept and examines the reactions of Western media to the proposal by the Soviet Union and the developing nations to play a larger role in international relations and communications activities. American efforts to diffuse the issue by offering technical assistance and training to developing nations, and financial pressures placed on UNESCO by the U.S. Congress are described in detail. At the end of Chapter 2, Giffard summarizes previous studies of media coverage of UNESCO.

Chapter 3 consists of a month-by-month chronology of events beginning with the announcement of the U.S. plan to withdraw from UNESCO in December 1983 until it did so in 1984. This chapter frames the debate in highly politicized terms and outlines the diverse range of opinions and sources which were available to the press.

Chapter 4 focuses on the amount and kind of news actually distributed to the American media by the four news services which provided most of the basic coverage to the mainstream media--AP, UPI, the New York Times and The Washington Post/LA Times. Giffard compares the output and orientation of these four gatekeeping agencies and concludes that coverage was strongly anti-UNESCO and supportive of U.S. withdrawal. "About 70 percent of the themes in the dispatches were hostile to the organization or pro-withdrawal. There was very little difference among the agencies in terms of the topics they emphasized or their orientation toward UNESCO" (p. xxi). In Chapter 5, he compares news agency dispatches with what actually appeared in the press and points out that the daily newspapers took an even more hostile position than did their information sources.

Finally, the book describes the various pro-UNESCO (UNESCO itself, U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and scientific and cultural organizations) and anti-UNESCO (U.S. government, the Heritage Foundation, and certain Jewish organizations, particularly the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith) lobby groups which attempted to influence both the media and the attitudes of members of the Reagan administration.

Why did the American press take the position it did? Clearly, their own interests and those of the U.S. had been threatened, and they were prepared to take measures to "head off any new information order that would be inimical to their international operations" (p. 27). What journalistic techniques did they utilize to promote their position, while appearing to retain a democratic and open press? According to Giffard, standard journalistic practices, such as reliance on government sources and handouts from interested parties, as well as the economic attraction of direct satellite feeds of news-agency copy, facilitated the possibility of the American press to take a narrow and self-interested position.

Not surprisingly, Giffard concludes that the most serious problem in American press coverage of the UNESCO issue was its outstanding lack of international context--the existence of which might have enabled the American public to understand the actual terms of the debate more thoroughly from multiple perspectives. This would have included the credible positions of the non-aligned nations in arguing for a fairer and more balanced view of (inter)national journalistic freedom and communication rights. Furthermore, the successful accomplishments of UNESCO in science, education and cultural development, should not have been ignored by the media during this period, as knowledge of these, too, would have contributed to a more comprehensive grasp of UNESCO's programs, structures, accomplishments, and mandates by the public.

As a historical case study of U.S. media coverage of a foreign policy issue, Giffard's book is a well-researched and invaluable source of empirical information to the research scholar unlikely to have the time or energy to do a content analysis of this scope. The book, however, could be a lot stronger theoretically if Giffard had framed the material evidence differently. The reader does, indeed, conclude that the notion of press freedom in the U.S. is questionable, but the strength of the data brought to bear in this study suggests that Giffard's own "theoretical" position could have been elaborated more convincingly.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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