The many purposes of the free press

My library has three sources that discuss freedom of the press in similar ways.  To my surprise these books written by different authors have similar findings but for different historical periods in different nations.  Here are the references:

1, Modris Eksteins, The Limits of Reason: The German Democratic Press and the Collapse of the Weimar Democracy, (Oxford University Press, London, 1975).

2. George Orwell, Essays, “The Freedom of the Press (Animal Farm), London, 17 August 1945, New York, 26 August 1946″, (Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, New York, 1968, copyright held by Sonia Brownell Orwell and renewed by Mark Hamilton, 1998).

3. Edward S. Herman, Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (Pantheon Books, New York, a division of Random House, 1988, 2002, copyright held by authors).

The Limits of Reason addresses freedom of the press in 1933 during the collapse of the democratic Weimar republic, in Germany, when the nation was beset by economic problems after WWI before WWII.  Orwell’s essay discusses journalism and other outlets for political opinion in England near the end of WWII.  Manufacturing Consent discusses journalism in the U.S. during the last quarter of the twentieth century.   I expected that their descriptions of the press in different nations would differ substantially but they sounded similar instead.

That’s because these authors were discussing the limitations of a “free” press in an economy and political system facing challenges.  They listed lots of related ideas.  For example, a free press has bills to pay and advertisers may expect a non-controversial publication that makes readers feel friendly toward the products being advertised.  Why encourage anxiety when advertisers just want people to buy?

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A publication can be owned by economic interests that have common views based upon their economic intentions. Perhaps politics to those in power seems uncontroversial because their own interests are being well served.  Advertising revenue might be endangered if a sponsor were to become offended.  And sales from books or newspapers may be slimmer when people have less disposable income.  That might make research journalism too expensive.  Or in a national climate of similar viewpoints that serve a political establishment, making the case for an alternative viewpoint can require more time than a beleaguered press can afford.  Or the public may hear certain establishment views so frequently that presenting an alternative can beckon readers to expend more time than they are willing to invest in order to understand deeper issues.

Modris Eksteins admitted that the liberal German press was curtailed in what it could print.  But intellectual discussions of politics were possible and had a long tradition.  Journalists hoped that by arguing in favor of morally good political outcomes that would benefit many groups, the liberal press could shore up the Weimar Republic.  But after economic problems became incurable, German newspapers couldn’t find a way to strengthen a failing political system.  “Economic and political disorientation provoked these crises and in the end left these firms devoid of political initiative and uncertain of their political role.” (Eksteins, p310)  Here it sounds as though the press ran out of ways to strengthen a failing political system.  And persecution of Jews in Germany had already begun and undermined Jewish writers who had been an important part of German journalism. After Goebbels took over the German press, the families that had owned newspapers lost them.  But what’s interesting is that failure of the press to find any answers to the problems that beset Germany had already happened and it happened first.  Goebbels took over after that.  Before I read this book, I thought that Germany’s press had been politically taken over by the Nazis and politically co-opted.  I hadn’t understood that there was a prior failure to shape a dialogue that offered any other solution than a Nazi future.

The Orwell essay expressed the idea of “voluntary censorship.”  This idea is  related to the failure of vision seen in Weimar Germany in 1933 that Eksteins discussed.  But it happened in England during WWII, and it began with trying write whatever would encourage England to win the war.  Orwell wrote about “intellectual cowardice” being a threat to writers and journalists.  Orwell wrote about an “orthodoxy of ideas” and centralization of press ownership in England.  Certain ideas were simply not published.  He argued that “Tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England, but they are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort.”  He warned that pruning the literary tree for the sake of “political expediency” could undermine a free press.  Orwell wrote “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  And that is usually the stuff that is outside political orthodoxy.  Political and economic stressors can affect journalism and reduce the journalistic investment in an open minded, open-ended press. But the need for open mindedness can be even greater in a desperate race to discover better solutions to policy problems.

Herman and Chomsky wrote a careful analysis using critical methodology to measure how press coverage in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s deviated from “reporting the facts” and into the territory of political messaging, propaganda and censorship.  They wrote that press coverage in a few concentrated privately owned media companies leads to incomplete coverage that is biased in favor of corporate and government views.  Journalist coverage shapes political opinion to conform to certain political characterizations that can treat violence differently depending on which group acts.  U.S. allies are characterized positively, and those who don’t ally themselves with American political objectives are described negatively.  It has become impossible for Americans to understand political happenings (Herman, Chomsky, p303, with Bagdikian).  Here again, there’s a failure of journalistic vision.  But the authors say that open-minded, critical journalism isn’t rewarded.  Instead of rewarding open-minded journalism, canned establishment views predominate and these are rewarded.  That’s why mainstream journalistic failures to inform the public meaningfully about issues become commonplace (Herman, Chomsky, p303, 304).

All three sources discussed the press’ failure to meet the challenge of understanding a new point of view in an atmosphere of established viewpoints.  It seems that even when established views don’t deliver people from a dismal present, they sometimes persist.  They have a kind of inertia that can be hard to overcome.  And most people don’t have time to research to discover alternative viewpoints.  But these writers, Eksteins, Orwell, Herman and Chomsky, also wished that a free press could deliver better viewpoints that might save us all from an unfortunate political or economic outcome.  And they viewed “the truth” as not elusive in terms of understanding but rather more commonly elusive in terms of reporting and often because of self censorship (inside a system that rewards self censorship) or self-doubt (inside a system that is failing).  Every person sometimes needs an antidote to prevailing viewpoints.  How else can we adapt to a changing world?

All text on this blog is copyrighted to Mel Scanlan Stahl. If you should refer to my blog posts or blog pages please acknowledge me as the source.

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