Responsibility and Free Expression
A recent conversation with students led me to opine on a blog I posted in 2018.
The conversation began with concerns about how government controls over Russian media are leading their coverage of the war in Ukraine to be nothing but a propaganda campaign.
I told the students about a speech President Coolidge gave to the Society of Newspaper Editors in which he said, “The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press.”
The conversation took a turn to the pamphleteers who did so much to shape the opinions and understanding of the American colonists toward independence and later the debates that produced our Constitution. The students saw these federalist and antifederalist publications as a model of a dynamic and balanced marketplace of ideas that they feel is missing from much of today’s popular media.
The students were lamenting that they believe there is perilously little accountability in the news sources the majority of their friends and families follow.
This brought me back to another passage in Coolidge’s speech that emphasized the need to keep a firewall between the news department and the advertising branch:
Our American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to their readers, and at the same time they play a most important part in connection with the business interests of the community, both through their news and advertising departments. Probably there is no rule of your profession to which you gentlemen are more devoted than that which prescribes that the editorial and the business policies of the paper are to be conducted by strictly separate departments. Editorial policy and news policy must not be influenced by business consideration; business policies must not be affected by editorial programs. Such a dictum strikes the outsider as involving a good deal of difficulty in the practical adjustments of every day management. Yet, in fact, I doubt if those adjustments are any more difficult than have to be made in every other department of human effort. Life is a long succession of compromises and adjustments, and it may be doubted whether the press is compelled to make them more frequently than others do.
He knew that allowing the commercial enterprise of the press to drive news content would lead us to some version of what many Americans now mistakenly believe is the news.
Advertising revenues are driven by ratings, and viewers are drawn to messages that affirm their views and beliefs. The media that once sought to enlighten and inform now profit by telling us what we want to know rather than what we need to know.
Objective and ethical news organizations continue to do important journalistic work, but their audience share is sadly in the minority.
The role of editorial establishments was to verify what they presented, but now in many news organizations, content is driven by ratings algorithms. The formats of delivery allow them to make unsubstantiated claims without recourse.
As more and more Americans get their “news” from social media sources, the concept of editorial oversight truly becomes meaningless.
Debates about what constitutes a true manifestation of first-amendment freedoms on social-media platforms have seen a general switch of what are often labeled liberal and conservative positions. Historically, the “liberal” position was in support of little or no limits. Today, what is often labeled as the “conservative” position is really a libertarian one: no one’s speech or writing should be regulated.
The challenge we face is guaranteeing free expression (a fundamental necessity for democracy to flourish), while holding people accountable for what they say and write (a fundamental necessity for civilization to persist). Free speech and free expression are sacred rights, and we who enjoy those rights should honor them by holding ourselves responsible for how we exercise them.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has sponsored a useful and thought-provoking roadmap to help colleges and universities navigate these challenges on our campuses.
As a people, we are at an epistemological crossroads. How can we divine fact from opinion and truth from mere belief? As we are being nearly drowned by ever-rising floods of unfiltered and manipulated information, our collective future will depend upon individuals who can rescue the truth from the deluge of noise.
This is the heart of a liberal-arts education. We teach our students to verify what they read and hear, we help them to think critically about the information and perspectives they encounter, and we encourage them to advocate for their conclusions.
Let us hope that those who drive the media will do likewise.