Figuring Out Our Fourth Estate

Can democracy survive in the absence of agreed-upon facts?

Journalists at the joint press conference of President Trump and Finland's President Niinistö, October 2019 (Flickr/TPKanslia)
Journalists at the joint press conference of President Trump and Finland's President Niinistö, October 2019 (Flickr/TPKanslia)

An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press by Stephen Bates; Yale University Press, 336 pp., $28

American democracy, always perhaps less sturdy than we imagined, has shown itself of late to be alarmingly fragile. Its survival depends on a number of elements currently in short supply: elected officials who abide not just by the law but by long-observed Constitutional principles and norms of behavior; a body politic animated more by the better angels of our nature than by our baser instincts or a cynical grasping after power; and, finally, on some minimum number of agreed-upon facts, and a shared sense of reality, among the citizenry.

That last element—the shared sense of reality—has been disintegrating for a while, for a host of reasons, many of them relating to what the journalist Bill Bishop termed The Big Sort, the clustering of Americans into geographic (and now also, especially, online) enclaves of the politically, economically, and culturally like-minded, in which ideological affinity for fellow enclave-dwellers is always deepening and ideological hostility toward the denizens of other enclaves is always mounting. This political sorting has been accelerated by the breakdown of a media ecosystem in which most Americans watched one of the three national broadcast TV networks and understood that when, say, Walter Cronkite declared “that’s the way it is,” well, that’s the way it was. In the current media ecosystem, there’s no longer any shared view of the way it is—you’ve got the Fox News view and the MSNBC view, The Daily Caller view and The Daily Beast view. Social media further seals people into their closed epistemic bubbles, exacerbating social division and the sense that we have two competing realities.

If we cannot agree on basic, scientifically measurable reality (Is climate change real? Do masks and other public-health measures help mitigate the spread of Covid-19? Did Joe Biden win more votes than Donald Trump?), then finding common political ground becomes impossible. Once a country sinks to this level of epistemological collapse, then “democracy is on the skids,” as Reinhold Niebuhr, America’s wisest political thinker since the Founders, once put it. When you reach that point, Niebuhr said, the country is susceptible to a racially scapegoating demagogue and at risk of sliding into fascism.

Niebuhr was talking about the America of the spring of 1944, when already-well-established fascists were still on the march in Europe, but his observation applies with distressing aptness to America in the fall of 2020. He was speaking at a meeting of The Commission on Freedom of the Press, a concatenation of some of the nation’s most eminent academics and intellectuals who came together amid world crisis to try and sort out how the fourth estate could better handle its responsibilities as a steward of democracy and a cultivator of citizens.

As Stephen Bates recounts in An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press, the Commission was conceived over drinks at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, in December 1942, when Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, proposed to his old Yale cohort Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, the idea that Hutchins might undertake a comprehensive philosophical examination of the relationship between a free press and a healthy constitutional democracy, to be funded by Time Inc. Though initially skeptical, Hutchins convened 13 of the most prominent political scientists, philosophers, historians, and legal scholars in the country—”the most extraordinary collaboration of American thinkers in the twentieth century,” as Bates has it—who worked for three years to produce a number of book-length reports on the topic. In a series of brief sketches of the committee members—the most notable of whom included Niebuhr, poet Archibald Macleish, historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., and Harold Lasswell (“by many estimates the most prolific political scientist ever”), along with other luminaries from the faculties at Harvard and the University of Chicago—Bates skillfully blends biography and intellectual history to provide a sense of how the clash of ideas and the clash of personalities intersected.

The central issue that Luce wanted the commission to examine—the media’s role in sustaining democracy—had been expressed a few years earlier by columnist Walter Lippmann, the most eminent behind-the-scenes advisor to the Commission. “The health of a society,” Lippmann had written in 1920, in Liberty and the News, “depends on the quality of the information it receives”—so if the newspaper, “the bible of democracy,” fails to maintain that quality, then “the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” Two years later, in Public Opinion, Lippmann lamented that democracy requires “an appetite for uninteresting truths” (good governance is boring!) that most newspaper readers do not possess, preferring instead to read about the sensational or the tawdry. (Another advisor to the commission, John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker—he coined the term documentary—puckishly dissented, arguing that the “yellow press at its yellowest” was “the most considerable contribution to democratic education in the last fifty years,” because tabloid journalism got the masses to read about America and was thereby a principal engine of immigrant assimilation.)

Picking up on Lippmann’s writing about the function of expertise in a democracy, the Commission promoted what it called “the democratic hypothesis,” the idea that “if people have access to the facts and arguments, they will govern themselves more wisely than anyone can govern them.” The role of expertise in democracy has grim salience today, as the question of what role scientific experts should have in setting public health rules during a pandemic has taken on potent political charge. But in our fractured media environment, the problem is that there are facts and “alternative facts,” information and disinformation.

Although most of the Commission’s members were born in the late 1800s, their recommendations about how to manage this challenge have surprising currency. Lasswell, who was an expert on propaganda (both producing and resisting it), proposed that antidemocratic books and articles bear warning labels that not only highlighted the danger but pointed to “a suitable antidote”—anticipating by 80 years the content labels Twitter and Facebook have lately started putting on misinformation.

Nor, it turns out, are self-reinforcing media echo chambers a unique product of the digital age. In January 1946, Paul Lazarsfeld, a sociologist at Columbia, explained to the Commission that people “expose themselves only to those things which reinforce their opinions. … The Democrats listen only to Democrats and the Republicans listen only to Republicans.” As Bates puts the general proposition: “When information clashes with deep-rooted pre-conceptions, the audience tends to reject it.” We’re seeing this play out vividly now: When Fox News deviates even a little from lockstep Trumpian orthodoxy, Fox viewers angrily defect to farther-right outlets like Newsmax and OANN that cater to their delusions and preconceptions.

Some of the ideas the Commission considered were intriguing. Should a publisher who fails to disclose that editorial content has been provided by a paying advertiser be prosecuted for bribery? Should an editor who knowingly publishes falsehoods be subject to criminal proceedings? Should journalists have to be licensed the way lawyers, doctors, and hairdressers are, allowing for the threat of effective disbarment from the profession for the violation of ethical standards? All ideas worth considering, but the finished report didn’t contain any of these recommendations. Partly as a result, Luce found the whole report milquetoast—bland and insufficiently philosophical in its approach.

Despite the project’s noble aspirations, the Commission was a bit of a disaster—an orgy of clashing egos, missed deadlines, and general disorganization. Its main product, a book called A Free and Responsible Press (1947), was, like many a committee-produced document, a watered-down offering that aimed to offend no one and therefore satisfied no one, least of all its principal patron. Part of the problem was one of disorganized execution—the Commission’s chair, Hutchins, was distracted by his unraveling marriage, among many other things. But there was also confusion in conception, a lack of clear agreement on the committee’s purpose. Was it supposed to provide a stronger philosophical basis for the existence of a free press in a democracy? Propose new business models for a struggling industry? Offer practical recommendations on thorny policy issues like the application of antitrust law toward media ownership or the enforcement of journalistic standards and practices? It tried to do a little of all of this, with only modest success. When A Free and Responsible Press was published, it received a mixed (at best) critical reception and was a commercial failure. Luce himself grudgingly gave it only “a gentleman’s C.” For his part, Hutchins ended up exasperated. “I am sorry I ever met Harry Luce,” he rued.

Yet for all its shortcomings, over time the Commission’s work insinuated itself into the thinking of media scholars and journalism schools. Bates—himself a professor of journalism and media studies at UNLV—traces its intellectual legacy. The so-called “social responsibility theory” of media, which took hold in journalism schools in the 1950s, maintains that the press should by all means do what it can to attract readership through entertaining storytelling but that its principal function must be to hold powerful people to account, and to provide readers with the tools necessary to be good democratic citizens. This was the kind of robust argument that Luce sought from his Commission but didn’t get.

Today, both media and democracy are in crisis. Newspaper revenue in America is down by nearly three-quarters across the past 15 years. Newsrooms are shrinking. Local news is disappearing. Business models are broken. The president has normalized the tarnishing of responsible reporting as “Fake News.” A substantial portion of the population no longer believes in democratic institutions.

But before we despair about how far we’ve fallen, we should recall that any postwar Golden Age of media was brief, and was in fact preceded by times and conditions perhaps darker than our own. In the 1940s, as Bates recounts, the Roosevelt administration tried to prosecute the Chicago Tribune for sedition—FDR even contemplated sending the Marines to occupy the Tribune Tower! (He also accused Time of aiding the Nazis and called newspaper columnists “an unnecessary excrescence on our civilization.”) While Roosevelt attacked the press, certain American elites—the president of Columbia University and the president of the American Political Science Association, to name two of the most prominent—were extolling the virtues of fascism.

The point is that American democracy has always been a delicate thing, dependent on many institutions, foremost among them a vigorous and responsible free press. As this book reminds us, without an informed electorate, we risk falling into ignorance, confusion, and fascism. “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush,” Hutchins later wrote. “It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

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Scott Stossel is the national editor of  The Atlantic and the author of  My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver.


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