International corporate leaders are seizing the classic roles of government, the military and religion

Books: The argument

July 05, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the sun

While we were once perceived as simply providing services, selling products and employing people, business now shares in much of the responsibility for our global quality of life," the late, great Roberto Goizueta, chairman of the Coca-Cola Co., once said. "Successful companies will handle this heightened sense of responsibility quite naturally, if not always immediately." He foresaw "a future in which the institutions with most influence by and large will be businesses."

Not governments, not armies, not religions, but people selling flavored carbonated water. And entertainment. And news. And light bulbs. And weaponry.

Welcome to the post-political era, as David Greising calls it in his new biography of Goizueta, "I'd Like the World To Buy a Coke" (Wiley, 334 pages, $24.95), "the post-political era." It could also be called the post-nationalism era. Or the post-patriotism era.

Which might be a good thing. Goizueta and other leaders of international businesses are convincing and even inspiring when they preach about how they will lead the whole world to peace and prosperity. Ted Turner, for example. Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg say of him in "Citizen Turner" (Harcourt Brace, 525 pages, $27): "He started to feel [that] he would end global suffering and make the world a better place" with his worldwide media empire.

But I keep thinking about Loral. And Milo Minderbinder.

Post-patriotism sounds harsh, even subversive, but what is one to make of this from Turner, the founder of Cable News Network: "I have come to the conclusion, from studying it, that we [the United States] are the greatest problem in the world [and] the national interest is subservient to the international interest." He's quoted that way in another biography, "It Ain't as Easy as It Looks" by Porter Bibb (Johnson Books, 512 pages, $12, paperback) .

The Goldbergs quote Turner as saying during the Gulf War that Iraq was the enemy of the United States, "but CNN has had, as an international global network, to step a little beyond that. We try to present facts not from a U.S. perspective but a human perspective."

Bibb suggests that the policy may have been less humanity-driven than market-driven. He notes that it was during the war that CNN first began to attract "global advertisers" and offer a "global rate." And he quotes CNN anchor Bernard Shaw as saying after the war was over, "There is no enemy. I can't take sides when my work is seen and heard in 105 countries."

Turner is not alone as a dispenser of information and entertainment who sees the world through post-patriotism glasses. There is Rupert Murdoch. In "Murdoch" (Touchstone, 496 pages, $16, Paperback), his fascinating account of Murdoch's creation of a global news and entertainment empire at least as impressive as Turner's William Shawcross says Murdoch sees himself as "an American international citizen."

I think New York Times columnist William Safire, whom Shawcross quotes, is closer to the mark: "Murdoch is the multi-national man, a true citizen of the world. He is at home in London, New York and Sydney and he pays homage to no political prince."

Except when he finds it in his financial best interest. A devoted Australian, he renounced his citizenship to become a U.S. citizen, because the U.S. Communications Act denied foreigners ownership of broadcasting companies, and Murdoch wanted an American TV network in his News Corporation empire.

He contends his world view and communications empire are "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere." But he pandered to the totalitarian regime in China by throwing the BBC off his broadcasts there.

Which brings me to Loral. I don't pretend to have the expertise or knowledge of all the facts to conclude that that American satellite company subverted U.S. national security by its commercial dealings with China. Or, if it did so, it did so knowingly.

What I do know is that some of the defenders of Loral and other corporations that sell military-related products to China justify it as being good business. And with the old if-we-don't-do-it, some-foreign-company-will rationalizing.

Murdoch didn't particularly like BBC anyway. So he felt no pangs of conscience. He's a Melrose Place type of guy. He admits that there is a "danger" that media barons like him are going to "saturate the world with satellite and cable" junk fare, quashing local cultures. But he justifies it on the grounds that the world will in that process become "more peaceful. And more prosperous."

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