A Free Press in a Free World
A CHECK UPON GOVERNMENT PROPAGANDA
By KENT COOPER, Executive Director of the Associated Press
Delivered before the War and Reconversion Congress of American Industry,National Association of Manufacturers, December 8, 1944
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 209-211.
I AM honored to have been asked to talk to you who have played your part in turning the world's greatest peace time industries into the mightiest military arsenal the world has ever known. That is one reason why we will win this war. But once the battle is won, where are we? We are not strangers to military victory; we have never lost a war. But that we are in this war proves that we did lose the peace after the last war.
Today there is no scarcity of peace plans. But in spite of that fact, I accepted this invitation with the hope that out of my experience I could contribute something that, if we can get it, will pave the way to a more permanent peace.
Though I suggested it at Versailles in 1919, it was not adopted. It is not a plan in the sense that it would change boundaries or enforce the transmigration of peoples. It involves no penalties. But it is a necessary fundamental for whatever detailed plan is adopted. The mere presentation of it received favorable consideration by the American State Department. By the same method, declarations favoring it were included in both political party platforms this year and a concurrent resolution demanding it was unanimously adopted by both houses of Congress.
Declared by all these to be a war aim, it has not taken the militant form it should. The President of the United States told me that with three-fourths of the world in darkness the idea is "so right." Yet it is going to take the persistent militant demand of our people to bring it about. It is not a grant to our press by which it may gain additional prosperity. It is not our press that needs it. But it can bring the establishment of a self-supporting press in many countries. But principally it is a necessary bulwark of peace for all peoples. It is as simple in its form of declaration as I originally worded it for Colonel House in Paris in 1919 as follows:
"Peace can only be maintained by short-circuiting self-seeking, predatory governments through letting the people of each nation really know the peoples of other nations. This can best be brought about through the medium of a world wide free press and freedom of international news exchange that will establish an international community of interest."
We have learned that war is no longer a matter of comparatively few thousands of troops. We have learned it can bring death to millions; that it can bring famine and pestilence. And that women and children, the old and the very young, are its victims as well as men in uniform.
Again the actual battlefields are far from these shores, but there is no solace in that. The potentials of long range bombers and of rocket bombs are clear. We ourselves have proven that enormous armies can strike half way around the world.
If we escape it this time, another war will bring such destructiveness that it may stop civilization in its tracks and plunge the world back into another dark age.
It is hard for us in America to believe that anything canstop us. Yes, we are strong. Yes, we are ingenious. But we have no monopoly on modern technology. We have no exclusivity on the idea of mass production.
No, there is not even a reasonable chance of security for this country unless we find a way to maintain the peace after this war.
Again we are proposing an association of nations to keep the peace. That is not a new idea. It is only an elaboration of what has been proposed, and at times tried through the ages.
It cannot solve the problem unless it includes a method of news dissemination that will bring understanding to the whole world community. This has never been tried.
In the United States we have enlarged the community idea to include the whole nation. So, right here in our own country, we have an example of what news communications between communities or states can do if buttressed by the grant of a free press. Here the welding influence of quick communication of news by telegraph, telephone, newspaper and radio is gratifyingly obvious. Through them we have been securely bound into one national community.
Another example is the British Commonwealth of Nations, which, despite the dispersion of its component parts over the world, has been welded through a free press into one national community served by the greatest world wide system of cable and wireless communications adapted for news exchange the world has ever seen. Over these channels of communication news flows freely and at rates that encourage unlimited word age. Acquaintance and understanding are the result.
Now most of us are shocked to learn that even in these modern times the peoples of many nations have had no similarly adequate means of knowing the peoples of other nations in the most practical way, which is by unshackled truthful news exchange. The fact is that such communication systems as there are between some countries have invoked either censorship or such heavy charges as to stifle news exchange efforts by agencies of the press. Censorship can suppress news exchange. Exorbitant communication rates can effect the same result since there are limitations to the finances of newspapers.
On the other hand, costs of the transmission of government sponsored news are never a barrier to governments that undertake it. For whether or not communication systems are adequate between nations, governments can export and import news intentionally to serve their selfish aims. When governments, which have ample funds as well as ulterior motives for spending them, wish to send their propaganda, the exorbitant rates never stand as a bar. The rewards for a successfully launched government news propaganda, whether purely domestic or international, are altogether too attractive to discourage government expenditure. Unfortunately, in most countries the newspapers are not able to finance honest news services to compete with the government propaganda news services that so often have been available free of charge. So the newspapers of those countries lapse into easy ways of living through government support.
Our newspapers, independent of government support, have become self-sustaining through subscriptions and advertising. If that were not the case there would be no free newspaper press here. What we should do is to show by the establishment of low communication rates, by press freedom and by the business methods of our press that the press of other lands can thrive without government support as well as ours. At the same time by printing truthful news it can serve the altruistic purpose of developing international community of interest.
Today the means of communication to bring about national understanding are all too meagre everywhere, but strangely enough in the international field these communication systems are most adequate only in the United States and, as I have said, between various units of the British Commonwealth. No two points, no matter how distant, are far apart when it comes to getting information exchanged in the British Empire. For example, there is a universal British Empire rate of only one and seven-tenths cents per word for news matter. In other words, from London to Australia—more than half way around the world—the rate is one-third as much as the regular press rates between London and New York.
There are further examples of this inconsistency in the fact that before the war the rate from London to Australia was one half the rate from London to Berlin, and less than the rate from Paris to Rome, both being capitals of neighboring countries, to say nothing of being less than Rome to Athens, Rome to Vienna, Berlin to Warsaw, and so forth.
There is nothing here that shows European governments, all of which own their communication systems, ever being interested in establishing adequate exchange of news. On the other hand, they seem intentionally to discourage it.
The ingenuity of our press itself has accomplished, through its own Press Wireless, a rate from Moscow to New York for example that is one-third of the regular press rate from London to New York. Bear this in mind, please, when we talk about cooperation with the Soviet Union. But to prove the need of international action, compare the low Moscow to New York rate with that from Moscow to Ankara, Turkey, next door neighbor to Russia, which is just five times the rate from Moscow to New York. This is not by intention of either Russia or Turkey. It is simply that there has been no exertion to facilitate a greater exchange of news nor a better understanding, such as has been undertaken between the United States and Russia.
And just one more instance to prove that the pre-war status of news communications was never founded on the basis of maintaining understanding. The regular press rates between Tokyo and New York and Tokyo and London before the war were more than ten times as much per word as the rate from London to Australia, and three times the rate between New York and London.
All of this means that if there is going to be a welding of the world into a community of interest there has got to be at least as low a world-wide rate as that which welds the British Commonwealth together. Moreover, the rate should be like our own letter postage rates in this country—no more between New York and San Francisco than within any city. That is the idea of the British rate—the same between any two points in the Empire. I should like to see a rate of one or two cents a word between any two capitals in the world.
I repeat, therefore, that if there is to be a world community of interest which would make a fertile field for peaceful living, this communication problem, which is full of inconsistencies and inequities, has got to be solved. Facilities must be tremendously increased. There must be an international communication system created not to see how much money it can make but how much good it can do. It would cost something. But the cost would not be a fraction of one per cent of the cost of world armament.
Granted that such a system is established, there must be a world wide free press which is itself a check upon government propaganda. It would be easier to impose upon our enemies the boon of a free press and an adequate communications system which would advance the cause of peace thanit would be to impose harsh penalties that would breed another war.
Seeking a world wide community of interest looking toward an enduring peace, we must hold forth inexorably for these two things. I should like to see our government declare now that we expect to accomplish them in the peace and not wait until the war ends, then to have these vital elements tossed around upon the sea of indecision and intrigue that always prevails in peace negotiations.
So important do I believe the matter to be that I would ask acceptance of the proposals involved in advance of any support or aid given by the United States in the reconstruction of the economic life of any country devastated by this war, besides imposing acceptance upon the enemy.
The field of thought on these matters and the field of activity in respect to them offer unusual opportunities for broad public interest. We would not let another country send us something to eat that is poisonous. We would not ourselves send abroad something to eat that is poisonous. No more should we let another country send to us poison for our minds, nor should we send poison abroad for the minds of people of other countries. Nor should any country.
I know well enough that this proposal of developing an international community of interest through freedom of information can be called Utopian and that some will say world wide freedom of the press is impossible of accomplishment. Perhaps, but I can say it offers inspiration that challenges the very divinity of our souls.
And there is both reassurance and promise in a statement from London today by Christopher Chancellor, General Manager of Reuters, the great British news agency, that the British and American press and the British and American governments are of the same mind as respects this issue of freedom of information.
Here in the United States the principle of true and unbiased news was first developed. It should be our responsibility to see to it that the principle is given to the world in a militant effort to improve international relations. Availability of the truth, the most powerful force in the world, through a free press., served by news writers with adequate facilities for getting at the truth and a world wide system of communications established for the purpose, should be the aim. Therein is something for which we can striven
That there may arise a spirit that will accomplish friendship and understanding through truthful news, exchange between all nations is my prayer. I hope it is yours.