The 2002 Povolny lecture series began Jan. 10. Named in honor of the distinguished Lawrence University government professor Mojmir Povolny, the lecture series covers world political issues and the state of international relations. Starting off the 2002 season was Peter Copeland, a 1979 Lawrence University graduate with a major in government. Copeland is the editor and general manager of the Scripps Howard News Service. He is also a well-traveled reporter, covering news stories in Chicago and El Paso before a five-year reporting job in Latin America. He currently lives in Washington.
Copeland studied with Povolny as a teacher, although at the time the pair’s political opinions clashed dramatically. “I came around eventually,” laughed Copeland, “but it took twenty-five years.”
Midway through his college career, Copeland decided that he needed a break, and studied abroad in England. Copeland thought that he would get away from Lawrence and everything related to it with the Atlantic Ocean as a barrier, but he was wrong. His political science final exam, which constituted the whole of his final grade, contained a question beginning, “According to Chong-Do Hah’s theory of modernization.” a reference to the work of the longtime Lawrence government professor. After the shock had worn off, Copeland sent a copy of the exam question to an amused Prof. Hah.
In recent years, Copeland has covered the U.S. political scene, focusing on the Pentagon. “There are seventeen miles of corridors in the Pentagon,” commented Copeland, “but for a long time [they wouldn’t let me into] one place-the National Military Command Center.” After a few years, Copeland was finally allowed inside the heavily protected building. “It’s everything you’ve ever seen in the movies,” said Copeland, “Big maps, huge tables filled with people, everything.” At the time, there had been a coup in Russia, unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow then-president Yeltsin.
According to Copeland, the plethora of analysts and researchers inside the Command Center were all doing the same thing during this particularly tense time-watching CNN. While this might sound incredible, CNN was proving a more effective and reliable information source than government satellite information. These were not ordinary CNN viewers, however: “They knew what to look for-they’re very different from the average person,” said Copeland.
This led into Copeland’s central point about the impact improved, faster technology has on the news media. Claiming that the Internet provides new means of progress and new dangers, Copeland explained how reporters in many countries live in fear, and rather than write about the news and thereby expose themselves to mortal danger, they import news about their own country from outside sources.
News is not the only commodity imported. Television shows, movies and other forms of entertainment are very popular outside their original countries. “Mexican soap operas are big in Russia,” said Copeland.
One of the best international properties Scripps Howard owns is the classic comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. Appearing in seventy-five countries, Peanuts appeals to readers all over the world, for as Copeland explains, “[Peanuts], though strongly rooted in the United States, shows people [all over the world] as the complicated kids we still are.”
After Schulz’s death, the demand for Peanuts remained so high that classic strips are still printed in newspapers around the world. In contrast, another well-done strip, like Doonesbury, has a very low international interest since it focuses on issues that rapidly become dated.
Comics aren’t the only form of entertainment the United States exports. Music (particularly rap, hip-hop, and rock) and movies are distributed, and unfortunately, these images of sex and violence sell, thereby highly distorting the international view of the United States. Some countries originally tried to prevent American culture from pervading their own societies, most notably Mexico and France, but these efforts failed.
Copeland emphasizes how the information age brings different cultures and news together rapidly. This has both positive and negative consequences. While CNN and the BBC inform people all over the world, Copeland warns, “information can kill, cause riots, and topple governments.
Copeland finished his lecture by reminding the audience that the new news system “can help enlighten and liberate, but it can also destroy cultures.” Technology has the power to distribute information rapidly, but such powerful technology warrants increased responsibility.