Global Media and the Ambiguities of Resonant Americanism

Article excerpt

Time Life International was started in 1945 because the U.S. was literally the only power in the world capable of restoring some of the continuities of civilization ... It is this towering uniqueness of power and influence [of the U.S.] that is ... the factual premise -- the existential premise that Time Inc. should do things in the international world.

Henry Luce, 1965

In February 1941, Henry Luce wrote an editorial in Life magazine that was to become a key, if not defining, moment in the modern discourse of Americanization. Responding to the lack of national purpose that Luce saw deriving from the continuation of isolationist policies in the inter-war years, "The American Century" proposed a more expansive role for the United States in world affairs. Luce believed that Americans had been unable "to accommodate themselves spiritually and physically to the fact of power." (1) The remedy, he argued, was for American people to "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most vital nation in the world and to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by means we see fit." Luce's international impulse can be set within a tradition of liberal-developmentalist thought that, since the late nineteenth century, had pinned American expansionism to the furtherance of free trade and private enterprise, and "to the belief that other nations should replicate America's own developmental experience." (2) The United States had been exporting its political ideals, economic systems, scientific knowledge and cultural products around the world for decades prior to Luce's missionary statement. However, Luce was perhaps the first person to realise the significance of the media in supporting the projection of American power in the postwar diplomatic and economic order.

In the decade following Luce's "American Century" editorial, the American media achieved a world-wide dominance. This was linked to American military strength in conquered nations such as West Germany, Italy and Japan (senior personnel having the power to establish newspapers and licence radio stations), to chronic shortages of materials in media producing countries such as Britain and France, and to a new (American sponsored) system of free communication flow underwritten by the 1947 General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade and, later, by UNESCO. (3) If Luce's providential vision of national influence coincided with the growth of American media leadership, it should not be surprising -- especially considering the proactive role that Luce took as editor-in-chief -- that Time and Life should absorb many of his views regarding America's role as a "powerhouse" from which "the ideals of civilization" should "spread throughout the world." Since Luce's 1941 editorial, every major anniversary of Time has witnessed a stolid recapitulation by the current managing editor of the magazine's commitment to particular American "propositions," "values" and "prejudices." At Time's 40th birthday party in 1963, for example, Luce made a speech about the importance of the magazine in upholding the "American proposition." By this, he meant a political commitment to liberty, equality, and constitutionalism, upheld by a free and responsible press. Henry Grunwald continued the rhetoric in 1983 with the magazine's 60th birthday. He said: "As for American and Western values, Time very consciously maintains a faith in them. We believe in freedom, including freedom of conscience and enterprise; in democracy, however imperfect; in a strong and beneficial role in the world, however difficult." (4) In the magazine's 75th birthday issue in 1998, Walter Issascon belied a certain hesitation in the unchecked promotion of American values -- calling them "prejudices" -- but still glorified the same with a familiar measure of brio, writing unapologetically that "Time remains prejudiced toward the value of free minds, free markets, free speech and free choice. …