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Journalism and the Arms Race

By Barrie Zwicker


"THE ARMS RACE is already killing us," reads a button. That's a summary of the inflationary effects of arms spending, the diversion of scarce resources, the cutbacks in civilian programs, contribution to unemployment (money invested in the military yields fewer jobs per billion dollars than any other major expenditure area) and contamination of the environment (radioactivity in waste products from nuclear weapons production equals precisely the radioactivity that would be released by explosion of all the weapons produced).

What journalists seem oblivious to are the harmful effects on journalism of the arms race.

• In the United States the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio have both been forced into crisis primarily by cutbacks in government funding, in line with the Reagan administration's putting top priority on the arms buildup at the expense of health, educational, social, artistic and environmental programs.

In Canada the CBC, funded in part by public funds (and a unique independent voice approximately in proportion to its public funding), has suffered severe cutbacks in that public funding. Can this be related to the arms race? It certainly can, even though no one ever says it.

"Canada, though invariably described as a low military spender, in fact ranks within the top 20 per cent of military spenders in the world when measured on a per capita basis," note Ernie Regehr and Mel Watkins in the recently-released Canada and the Nuclear Arms Race (James Lorimer & Company, paperback).

In absolute terms, Canada's $7-billion arms budget for fiscal 1982-83 ranks this country closer to the top 10 per cent of arms spenders, and within the top third of the top 30 industrial countries in this dubious category. In recent years, Regehr and Watkins note, Canadian military spending has been increasing at a rate of between 15 and 20 per cent annually.

• Developments in the U.S. media have considerable impact all over the world, as two-thirds of all the information in the world originates in the States. Probably nowhere is the impact felt more than in Canada, with our massive imports of wire copy, TV footage (entertainment and news), magazines, books and movies. Increasingly in the States, companies that produce nuclear weapons own substantial interests in media companies.

Some of them have even become substantial advertisers in journalism reviews. The Northrop Corporation, which makes inertial guidance systems for the MX missile, runs ads regularly in the Columbia Journalism Review featuring a single quotation by a prominent American on the meaning of a free press. "Presumably," writes Robert Friedman in the March issue of Nuclear Times, "these bold-faced statements are intended to convince the editors and publishers who read this magazine that Northrop is on their side. (In fact, Thomas Jones, the chairman of Northrop, was for many years a director of the Los Angeles Times company.)" Of course, Jones curries favour on various fronts. It was revealed that Jones gave one of Richard Nixon's bagmen $75,000 cash — money that ended up helping pay the defence bills of the Watergate burglars.

McDonnell Douglas is a substantial advertiser on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. Advertising is well known absolutely everywhere except among journalists to have a collective statistical relationship with editorial copy. Generally, industries and large companies that are substantial advertisers are neither investigated nor criticized.

At the same time, these companies — McDonnell Douglas is an example — promote their version of reality in the same media.

McDonnell Douglas, which does half its business with the Pentagon, has run ads in Time and Newsweek promoting the merits of the cruise missile which it helped design (but which even the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized).

McDonnell Douglas ran a number of ads in Aviation Week magazine raising the spectre of a Soviet invasion. "One of these ads, prepared by the J. Walter Thompson agency, shows a map of the Bering Straits under the headline, 'How to take the worry out of being close,' " reported Friedman in Nuclear Times. "The point of the campaign, according to John Bickers, director of advertising for McDonnell, is to combat the company's number one public relations problem: the perception that the United States is spending too much on weapons."

• Secrecy. Secrecy is supposed to be anathema to a free press. But the nuclear weapons establishment has been the greatest single promoter and enforcer of secrecy in the history of the world. "The . . . perhaps most striking difference between atomic energy secrecy and other government secrecy is the way in which decisions are made," wrote Mary M. Cheh in the December 1982 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "The information is simply 'born-classified.' "

From World War II on, Cheh noted, "press and public simply continued the wartime habit of not asking any questions. The pattern of self-censorship was apparently deeply ingrained." How different was and is the situation in Canada? Not different. It is just that we have no Bulletin of the Canadian Atomic Scientists to discuss the matter, to make it live in black and white.

The press establishment, such a vigorous defender of freedom of the press in the abstract, changes its tune when press freedom is seemingly in conflict with a sense of patriotism, no matter how ill-defined or ill-placed. When the Progressive magazine was prevented by the U.S. government in 1979 from publishing an article about government secrecy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, many newspapers, including the Washington Post, were sharply critical of the Progressive.

As Cheh put it in her low-key way, "there are also the many negative effects associated with a public kept purposefully uninformed or misinformed about an area of vital national concern." It is especially troubling when the media, ostensibly dedicated to promoting public understanding of important issues, have been for so long such an integral part of the nuclear secrecy establishment.

Published in Sources Summer 1983


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