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Up on the Roof, Dishing Out Freedom : Television: Ted Turner’s CNN seems to be making Marshall McLuhan’s global village a reality.

<i> Norman Ornstein is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. </i>

Outside Timisoara, Romania, near the Yugoslav border, our interpreter answered my question about the profusion of satellite dishes. “Many of us get Yugoslav and Hungarian television,” she said. “Until recently, Channel 3 in Yugoslavia carried CNN. They don’t anymore, but we had it when we needed it.” That meant during the revolution, when Timisoarans, huddled in their houses as gun battles raged outside, found out what was happening in their own city and country from Bernard Shaw.

From Tian An Men Square to Timisoara, from Costa Rica to Cairo, Cable News Network, now 10 years old, has become a modern phenomenon. In Moscow, CNN currently provides microwave broadcasts to two major hotels and the Soviet Foreign Ministry; it will soon be in Moscow newsrooms and the U.S Embassy, and the Soviets themselves have plans to produce a weekly half-hour of highlights of CNN’s international reports, in Russian for general audiences. Before long, if other countries are any guide, CNN’s reception will be even broader, reaching enough people that news otherwise delayed or suppressed will get out around the country.

In Romania, the news came in because of the proliferation of satellite dishes, even though dishes there, like dishes here, are expensive, the equivalent in Romania of two years’ salary. The cost can be reduced by one-third or more by importing only the transponder and building the dish itself. That is still expensive, especially in a poor country, but apparently not prohibitve.

As a result, CNN may well become the common denominator of news worldwide, and Ted Turner will have made Marshall McLuhan’s global village a reality.

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This is good news, obviously, for Turner (though taking commercial advantage of the phenomenon may not be easy). It is even better news for advocates of freedom and democracy. With its straightforward, objective and no-frills coverage of world events, CNN has built a credibility abroad that should be the envy of every other news organization. (Times Mirror data show that in the United States, CNN is also highly respected among news people and the public.) Where CNN is broadcast, it is watched--and it is believed. It puts no spin on the news, but by showing the news, disseminating information outside the confines of governments that have tried in the past to contain it, it inevitably enhances freedom.

By being available wherever violence or government repression might take place, and with the possibility (and growing likelihood) that its coverage will be transmitted not only abroad but within, it must give governments pause before they send troops or the security police. And the more that outside information is freely available, the less the impact when dictators close down independent internal news outlets, as Romanian leader Ion Iliescu did this month, temporarily, with Romania Libera, the largest free newspaper in the country.

The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have served similar functions and will continue to do so, with the added bonus of being able to transmit news in many native languages. But CNN, with its non-government television signal, adds a new dimension. It doesn’t need the U.S. government to help it, but there are things that should be done, by the private sector and the government, to support its growth abroad. First, television managers worldwide should be encouraged to carry CNN and CNN should be encouraged to make its signal available even where it is not a moneymaker.

Above all, we should find ways to make satellite dishes less expensive and more readily available, especially in countries that have historically tightly regulated the flow of information. It is not clear why Romania under Ceaucescu allowed satellite dishes at all; more than likely, it was a bureaucratic blunder. In any case, we should seize every opportunity to get as many dishes in as possible before heavy-handed governments clamp down, and to find the technology to miniaturize them (making them less easy to detect) and reduce their unit costs.

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Whether through encouraging new technology, developing joint ventures to produce the dishes without having to import them, or using foreign aid credits, we should consciously try to create a supply to fit the demand. Once dishes sprout up around a country, information will sprout, too--and with free information, especially straightforward and comprehensive news, freedom will tend to follow, and be more likely to persist.


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