Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have We Been Here Before? (or the Clark Griswold Effect, aka the "Look Honey, Big Ben")

The Commission on Freedom of the Press produced the report “A Free and Responsible Press” in response to the question: is freedom of the press in danger? Their answer was a resounding yes. This reaction is debatable upon viewing the media’s response, or lack thereof in the days following the reports publication. As the cultural framework of our country changed from the time of our Founding Fathers to the industrial world power realized at the time of the 1947 report, the makeup of our mass media changed as well. There is a cyclical device at play in much of what the commission discusses. As they cover the danger that press freedom encounters from the new economic structure derived from the industrial nature of modern society, it is hinted that these models are necessary to support modern society’s large agents of mass communication. It is noted that the devices used to provide information can spread lies faster than our forefathers could have fathomed. Yet, it is insinuated that our ancestors would still place the utmost importance on a free media, as is shown by a Thomas Jefferson quote stating that he placed more significance on the role of the newspaper than that of government (under the stipulation that everyone could read. Big stipulation). The report uses more cyclical logic in their grappling with the fundamental paradox at hand. Can regulatory efforts of any kind refine the actions of the press to service the greater good? Or would this regulation inhibit the moral right of the free press to act as a marketplace of ideas? The commission begins to hint at their stance, in a dog chasing its tail fashion, by first saying, “Wholly apart from the traditional ground for a free press – that it promotes the “victory of truth over falsehood” in the public arena – we see that public discussion is a necessary condition for a free society and that freedom of expression is a necessary condition of adequate public discussion” (Hutchins, 1947, p. 9). Extremely eloquent, if recurrent. Yet, the historical context that follows helps to narrow their perspective. It is pointed out that the only serious obstacle to free expression in the days leading up to our country’s independence was government censorship. If protected, every man could start a publication of his own and partake in the competition of ideas in the local market place. Now, protection against government guarantees little to a man (or woman) with something to say. The powers that be in the media bureaucracy decide what is disseminated to the public (what facts, and, consequently, what version of the truth). This leads to a key statement: “The complexity of modern industrial society, the critical world situation, and the new menaces to freedom which these imply mean that the time has come for the press to assume a new public responsibility” (Hutchins, 1947, p. 17). A call to action! Finally! The answer, as the commission sees it, lies not in regulation of any sort, but in the restructuring of the press’ duties to the public they serve. As it is stated, “The freedom of the press can remain a right of those who publish only if it incorporates into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest” (Hutchins, 1947, p. 18). A pretty self explanatory phrase, but is it? The statement offers an ultimatum of those in control calling for press accountability in exchange for their freedom to publish. It hinges on the press’ ability to remove itself from its partial relationships with its economic background. This has certainly not been heeded and we are almost a decade into the 21st Century. The controlling interests are as involved as ever (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jul/27/newspaper-owners-editorial-control). It also implies the need to provide a forum for the “forgotten rights of speakers that have no press”. Low income members of our society have long been under represented. With the advent of one of the most important technological advancements of the past century (especially concerning the marketplace of ideas), they find themselves, literally, without a forum for their voice (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/08/AR2006030802362.html). It would be interesting to see how the Internet would fit into the commission’s report. They state that the five ideal commands levied to garner the intelligence needed to cultivate a free society can never be met, but it seems upon first inspection that the Internet covers all the proverbial bases. The issue still remains, in 2009, as roundabout as John Adams’ quote on the title page of the report: “If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind, philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it.”

P.S. If anyone who reads this in class gets the reference in the title and can pin it to my blog entry, I will wash their car...

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