Another "Philosophy of Journalism" essay. You be the judge. In a democratic society, should the news media, which are big business and commercially driven, cater to the marketplace and give the public what it wants? Or should the news media assume the responsibility of providing content they believe their audiences should have to elevate the level of understanding of public affairs and the quality of political discourse?
In my opinion, the news media in a democratic society should assume a certain amount of responsibility for elevating understanding of public affairs and quality of political discourse. However, as a part of its ethical mandate to serve political discourse among lay citizens, the press should avoid elitist judgment-making and centralization of power in the commercial realm as much as governmental regulation.
Role of the Press in Democracy
In 1822, James Madison wrote that “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy… a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” In Madison’s view, the media are indeed pivotal to the democratic process. Only a free press can guarantee public access to that information which enhances self-governance. Accordingly, the press must “have broad protection against infringements of its rights, and must be able to search out information when the public interest is concerned” (ND Democracy Web). Upon signing the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson stated: “a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”
According to Robert W. McChesney, writing in a 1998 issue of Boston Review, an informed, participating citizenry in a democracy “depends on media that play a public service function.” According to McChesney, the media “perform essential political, social, economic, and cultural functions in modern democracies.” Media are a primary source of political information for most citizens. I agree whole-heartedly with McChesney’s following assertion:
Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinion and analysis and debate on important issues, reflects the diversity of citizens, and promotes public accountability of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be. In short, the media in a democracy must foster deliberation and diversity, and ensure accountability.
For the press to serve the important role of enhancing public discourse, the press must be a ‘free’ press. This argument has typically been aimed toward governmental regulation of press. Even in modern times, proponents of press freedom fight against governmental regulation of the press. Recently, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Attack on The Press: Journalism on the Front Lines, found a trend of government overreach and repression of journalistic freedoms in the United States. In an online blog article at The Guardian, Roy Greenslade writes, “[a]n unprecedented rise in the number of journalists killed and imprisoned in the past year, coupled with restrictive legislation and state censorship, is jeopardizing [sic] independent reporting in many countries.” Greenslade cites CPJ deputy director Robert Mahoney: "[w]hen journalists are silenced, whether through violence or laws, we all stand to lose because perpetrators are able to obscure misdeeds, silence dissent, and disempower citizens.”  Mahoney appealed to the fundamental right to receive and impart information as a criticism of press regulation by government.
According to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ model, supported by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “speech must be protected because it brings diversity, competition and efficiency to the collective search for truth” (Garry, 1989). According to the marketplace of ideas, freedom of speech and of the press must be defended on the basis of the free exchange of ideas as a path to discovering truth. Many have used the ‘marketplace of ideas’ model as an argument against press regulation, especially governmental regulation. However, the traditional marketplace of ideas model of the press has come under scrutiny in modern times, on the basis of concentration of media ownership in the economic marketplace. Patrick Garry (1989) writes:
A major reason for criticism of the traditional marketplace model is that competition and open access no longer exist in the newspaper industry. An assumption behind the first amendment was that any writer could gain access to a printing press without the help of government.'" When monopolies arose in broadcast media, however, the government was quick to impose regulations ensuring access and diversity of ownership and content. Such regulations illustrate society’s deep concern with concentrated ownership in the media and a desire for a diverse source of news and ideas and for citizen participation in social communication.
According to Garry, the media industry no longer supplies a ‘free’ marketplace of ideas. A "revised marketplace" model of freedom of the press provides for a marketplace of competitive and independent presses, as overseen by federal government. Stucke and Grunes write that “a vibrant marketplace of ideas and our democracy’s health require competing, independent voices” (2001, p. 1400). In defense of relaxation of regulations that limit media ownership and anti-competitive conduct, Stucke and Grunes argue that “because our democracy’s health depends on competition among traditional media, the cost of allowing already dominant firms to acquire the assets of their remaining competitors outweighs the benefits of looser antitrust laws” (p. 1401). I agree that citizens should be protected against media giants that may serve economic marketplace needs and desires, while ignoring ethical standards and responsibly to enhance political discourse.
Freedom of the press in modern times has been criticized on the basis of concentration of power in economic media ‘giants.’ In 1989, Patrick Garry wrote, “concentration in ownership has been criticized on the following grounds: (1) that it poses a danger to diversity of ideas and frustrates the concept of a marketplace of ideas; and (2) that such concentration frustrates citizen participation in government.”
In a 1998 issue of Boston Review, Robert W. McChesney writes:
The American media system is spinning out of control in a hyper-commercialized frenzy. Fewer than ten transnational media conglomerates dominate much of our media; fewer than two dozen account for the overwhelming majority of our newspapers, magazines, films, television, radio, and books. With every aspect of our media culture now fair game for commercial exploitation, we can look forward to the full-scale commercialization of sports, arts, and education, the disappearance of notions of public service from public discourse, and the degeneration of journalism, political coverage, and children's programming under commercial pressure.
According to McChesney, America needs new incentives for nonprofit media systems, public broadcast and antitrust.
I believe that centralization of power in media monopolies in the economic marketplace is just as toxic to the press’ role in democratic process as is government regulation of the press, or centralization of power in the political realm. In my opinion, a ‘free’ press must remain free from both government pressures and large-scale commercial pressures. The press should have institutional standards for ethical, accurate and complete reporting of public affairs. The press should also fairly represent the views of U.S. citizens, to the best of its abilities. Mandates to provide accurate information and to serve political discourse should not be enforced by government or political institutions, but by the press itself.
Responsibility of the Press
In my opinion, the press has a responsibility to provide citizens with the information and the medium required for high-quality political discourse. The press should provide balanced and varied viewpoints in serving the marketplace of ideas, not passing elitist judgments or jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence. In an attack on what he calls political debate that crosses a moral line, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal criticizes media outlets that resort to “authoritarian tactics” such as slandering of competitors: “Too many news outlets are busy "inciting people . . . to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral."
According to an article by American Journalism Review, journalists have often been labeled as ‘elitist.’ Richard Harwood writes, “The point is made in numerous studies of popular opinion revealing widespread distaste for the press and its ‘elitist’ posturing.” Harwood argues otherwise:
The truth is that journalism as an occupational category has as many compartments as the American society, a small number of "elitists" laboring alongside those who, like most Americans, perform relatively routine but necessary production and service functions. There is nothing wrong with that. An institution that wants to be a mass medium ought to reflect the society it observes and interprets.
I agree especially with the last sentence above, that the press “ought to reflect the society it observes and interprets.” As much as possible, journalists and editors should remove themselves from political, economic or educational elitism, preferring journalistic integrity and balanced, complete information. I believe that the press has social responsibilities, to provide accurate information and news about public affairs, to serve as a watchdog on government, to educate, and to help provide citizens with the information and the capacity to participate in political discourse and decision-making.
Despite the importance of fulfilling certain social responsibilities, I believe that the U.S. should avoid government regulation and enforcement of these responsibilities. I agree with McChesney, that political discourse and a democratic media might benefit from incentives for non-profit media systems, public broadcast and antitrust. I find intriguing some arguments by various reporters and entrepreneurs that journalism would benefit from technology start-up and non-profit endeavors. Michael Arrington writes, “Journalists still matter. A lot. Especially the good ones.”16 I believe that, by embracing social responsibility without elitism, fighting government regulation, and supporting non-profit and small business journalism endeavors, the press could truly be ‘free’ to enhance political discourse and serve the marketplace of ideas.
Center for American Progress (April 15, 2011). How the Media Directs the Tone of Political Discourse.
Garry, P. (1989) The First Amendment and Freedom of the Press: A Revised Approach to the Marketplace of Ideas Concept. 72 Marq. L. Rev. 187
Stucke, M., Grunes, A. (2010) Why More Antitrust Immunity for the Media Is a Bad Idea. 105 Nw. U. L. Rev. Colloquy 115