I was tasked in my professional life to discuss the role of media in a democracy as part of a panel discussion. This is what I came up with and presented yesterday:
I think it’s important, amidst our discussion of fake news, cultural capital, and politics, to also discuss the role of the free press in U.S. history from an historical perspective. Thomas Jefferson, in written discussion about the U.S. Constitution as it was being debated and written, said:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” TJ to Edward Carrington, 1787.
There’s a lot of ideas packed into that couple of sentences, but essentially, Jefferson places a a free press above a working governing body. He also, in the same space, advocates for education and literacy as cornerstones for government.
The point, it seems, that a free people should be able to freely share information about those who would prefer power for themselves, that is, those who would govern.
Governance ought to be a public service. The free sharing of information about those who would govern is meant to keep it so. The will of the people can only be enacted when the people act on good information. And the press’s role is to provide that.
I grant you, in 1787, the free press meant, literally, the freedom to print information on a press and distribute it. And, as the old adage goes, speech was only free to those who could afford a press.
But the concept here relies on the bedrock principle that free information remains a critical component in a functional democracy. Media free from censorship or external influence provides people with information they need to make good decisions at the polls.
The media landscape today includes more than just news media, but professional news media, in my opinion, have been doing an excellent job of reporting on those who would govern. I’m tickled every time I read or see a piece that outlines evidence of lying and other falsehoods on the part of the governed. But then again, as a reporter almost twenty years ago, I considered that my duty as a journalist. It was literally my job to call out those in power. When Wisconsin’s then-Governor Tommy Thompson yelled at me during a press conference for asking questions he didn’t want answered, I reported it.
Why just say someone’s a jerk when you can show evidence of it?
Jefferson’s position relied on a couple of things: The Lockeian ideal of the information marketplace, and the assumption that an educated people would read as many sources of information as possible. The end goal in that scenario was that all news -- the hoaxes and the gossip as well as the verified -- would circulate, and the people would be smart enough to see “truth” rise to the top. It also could not imagine an era when everyone, potentially, could publish their views. The sheer volume of information and misinformation projected to the people today requires that we limit our reading and information-gathering.
And the bigger problem today is that, with that limitation, consumers tend to consult media sources that agree with their perspectives, ideals, or points of view. There’s media theory to suggest that embedded ideology, in particular, is difficult to challenge. Individuals who have firm political beliefs rarely change their minds, even faced with evidence that their perspectives are wrong. And today’s media consumers don’t have to consult a media source that might provide contrary evidence to their ideological belief structure. They feel comfortable with their same sources, which often build, back, and reinforce their ideologies. They see no reason to consult other sources, and become entrenched in their points of view.
In a society that relies on the free exchange of information, such entrenchment is dangerous. Democracy relies on free exchange, critique, and discussion, and such must cross ideological borders in order to be effective.
Achieving that is the challenge.
In my research, I’ve examined ideological discourse in farming and in mainstream magazines between 1910 and 1960, looking for commonalities and divergences. During that fifty year period in the United States, the population shifted from 90 percent rural to 90 percent urban. By 1960, I found that a significant disconnect existed between discourse in rural America and discourse in urban America. The two populations were using the same language, but they often did not mean the same thing.
I believe that gap in ideological discourse has only widened with time, and that might be the root of our current problem. By focusing only on media that agrees with our personal points of view, we miss the point of engaged and critical discussion with those who have differing points of view.