Note: This paper was given at the Third Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, April 1997, Montana State University-Northern
In 1942, Time magazine founder Henry Luce asked former Yale classmate Robert Hutchins to head a blue-ribbon panel to explore mounting problems facing the press. Luce and Hutchins feared low journalism--newspapers and the so-called "pulp press" of mass culture and society--was inching toward government intervention due to rapidly increasing concentration of media power in fewer and fewer hands, the failure of those few to provide adequate service, and the perception of irresponsible behavior by journalists and media owners. Luce, Hutchins and most members of the Commission on Freedom of the Press also believed First Amendment freedoms were increasingly threatened by newly formed totalitarian regimes in key global positions (1).
After nearly 175 years of libertarian journalism, a study panel was being assembled to assess low journalism's groundings in the Lockean principles of human rationality, personal freedom, trust in individuals, and development of moral character (2). From the writings of John Milton, John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, libertarianism advocated a marketplace of ideas, free from the fetters of government and subject to the Miltonian principle that, given equal stakes, truth always outdistances deceit. Hutchins, in essence, brought together a group of middlebrow technocrats and cultural guardians to determine whether the libertarian paradigm of an "inalienable" and "natural" right of a free press needed adjustment (3).
The debate over the role of the press in the 1940s had its roots in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. By 1933, the American newspaper industry was under considerable pressure to control profits and improve working conditions, a signal that First Amendment protection on the business side was eroding. Publishers joined forces with influential business associations to fight for what they considered "free press" issues threatened by new federal laws and proposed legislation designed to promote social welfare, regulate commerce, and reform child labor practices (4). In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that "a newspaper has no special immunity from the application of general laws" (5), and eight years later, during the Hutchins deliberations, the court ruled that market exclusivity to wire services was an illegal restraint of trade. Justice Hugo Black wrote that the First Amendment "rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential for the welfare of the public." But, he wrote, the First Amendment does not supersede the Constitution's commerce clause and "does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests" (6). At the same time, some press critics, decrying the development of journalism as "big business," harshly criticized newspapers for exhibiting class bias and becoming less and less representative (7). It was in this context that on 28 February 1944, Hutchins announced his intent "...to discover where free expression is or is not limited, whether by governmental censorship, pressures from readers or advertisers or the unwisdom of its proprietors or the timidity of its management" (8). Hutchins and Luce appointed some 16 members to the Commission with 13 playing active roles in the study and final report. They included Zechariah Chafee Jr., John M. Clark, John Dickinson, William E. Hocking, Harold D. Lasswell, Archibald MacLeish, Charles E. Merriam, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Redfield, Beardsley Ruml, Arthur M. Schlesinger and George M. Shuster--and Commission Executive Director Robert Leigh. Most were in their 50s, predominantly British-American, and Protestant with terminal college degrees. Most were reared in upper middle-class households with occupational traditions in education, religion or medicine. Nearly all held distinguished faculty appointments at premier schools; they were prolific in their published works as well, averaging 12 books in their academic careers.
This highly educated, genteel group met 17 times over two years, interviewing 58 witnesses. The staff spoke to 225 others while members and staff prepared 176 documents for review (9). By the time of its release on 26 March 1947, the Hutchins report had been revised nine times, mostly amid acrimonious debate over the degree to which government should be involved. The panel said freedom of the press implied a negative freedom "from" what it called "external compulsions" but not the "pressures" necessary for robust public discourse. However, the First Amendment also meant the press had a positive freedom--"for making its contribution to the maintenance and development of a free society" (10). The Commission said newspapers should redefine themselves as "common carriers of public discussion" by providing:
The findings met almost immediate rejection, with publishers and editors reacting bitterly to content and tone. Critics from all sides came forth in varying states of hysteria, making serious claims and counterclaims on several points, including whether the Commission actually recommended government intervention and whether its members were "Reds" (12). Even press critics found fault in the report, but they at least recognized its value in moving the theater of media criticism from an easily dismissed fringe into the core of dominant society and culture (13). In 1956, Theodore Peterson adopted the Hutchins constructs as the underpinnings of a normative social responsibility theory. Peterson said Enlightenment-based libertarianism had been displaced by technology, the industrial revolution, criticism of press conventions, a "new intellectual climate" that looked critically upon "built-in correctives," and the emergence of educated and sophisticated press barons following a growing sense of responsibility. The "public be damned" attitude had been replaced by "the consumer is king," and such obligation on the business side made moral duties explicit. Peterson wrote:
Free expression being a moral right, (media operators) are obligated to make sure that all significant viewpoints of the citizenry are represented...they should see that "all ideas deserving a public hearing shall have a public hearing." The public as well as the editors and owners should decide what ideas deserve a public hearing. (14)
That mandate recognizes two primary shifts, reflected today in "public," "civic," and communitarian press movements: first, from classical liberal theory of natural right to one of neo-liberal theory of "a permissive, conditional, and social right" (15); second, from an emphasis on negative, passive freedom to one that is active and positive (16). In its application then as now, the Hutchins Commission has been a focal point in the ongoing debate over whether the press owns a franchise in editorial self-determination or whether it has an obligation, duty or responsibility to share that function with others--readers, viewers, politicians, clergy--under the democratic assumption that when citizens are properly informed, they will make proper decisions.
Imprints of Hutchins conventions can be found in newspaper master plans, mid-career programs, textbooks and ethics manuals, leaving little doubt that the Commission's proclivities and theory are shared, consciously or otherwise, by low journalism's editorial and educational institutions. Today's newspapers have devoted more space to opposing editorial opinions, created new positions--ombudsmen and reader representatives--to field and write about complaints, and opened their editorial boards to outsiders (17). The Commission's report is credited with creation of the National News Council, which operated for about 10 years before folding from lack of support, and the Neiman Foundation, a private group dedicated primarily to bringing mid-career journalism professionals to Harvard for a year of study. Most recently, some media outlets have adopted communitarian goals to make the press a partner of government and citizens to cure social ills brought on by classical, Enlightenment-based liberalism (18).
Today's proponents of public journalism share much with their counterparts of 50 years past. They are predominantly male, educated well above the norm, and seasoned well in advanced faculty ranks. Like the Hutchins Commissioners, their roots in deep genteel tradition help explain their desire for "technocratic control" in the business and practice of journalism or their perceptions of powerful effects that "undermine high culture with trivial forms of entertainment" (19). In his own interpretation of Hutchins-based social responsibility, scholar Denis McQuail asserts, "Communication is too important to be left to professionals" (20). He may be right, but the half-century attempts to repair damaged social fabric and "democratize" America through a right-minded press have been as futile as those targeting the political process itself.
Public journalism is rooted in the raucous merger decade of the 1980s, when the nation lost eight major newspaper markets to monopoly. It was a decade of limited antitrust enforcement under the Ronald Reagan-David Stockman "trickle down" formula grounded in the theory that a hands-off approach to corporate capitalism would benefit all Americans (21). At the same time, two newspaper chains, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, were concocting what appeared to be revolutionary plans to reform the ritual of American journalism, its practices and approaches to news. This strategy, motivated in part by the perpetual concern over luring young readers into the newspapers, has met with limited success by attaching itself to a philosophy that news needs to get back to some Hutchins basics. Essentially, the core of the new "civic" and "public" journalism demands that the press speaks to all people, lets them speak back in a dialogue that makes all parties partners, then delivers a full news report "in a context that gives it meaning." In addition, the press has a mandate to find the "truth behind the truth," and make itself "accountable" to the public.
So, much of what has been formulated in "cutting-edge" news strategy has its roots in Hutchins; indeed, the Gannett map shows all five Hutchins recommendations in News 2000, the corporate manual designed to guide the chain's news processes well into the next century. News 2000's components--as well as those at other chains and independently owned papers--are varied and controversial, but their collective philosophy is one that seeks to "reconnect" news operations to their publics and that commits to a more egalitarian and inclusive presentation of news. At Gannett and Knight-Ridder, news executives are taking a hard look at job candidates to make sure they "fit" the philosophy and they are making it clear to employees that they must follow the strict gameplan for gaining back the public favor (22). Freedom Forum, Gannett's private foundation for funding news and news institution research, was so enthralled by Hutchins that it rewrote the Commission's recommendations to fit the commitment of the organization to its "Newseum," which opened in Arlington, Virginia, on the 50th anniversary of the Hutchins report.
Like the constructs of its mid-century antecedent, public journalism is grounded in the work of scholars at prestige schools. One of the leading proponents of the modern charge is Edmund Lambeth, whose second edition of Committed Journalism framed a whole philosophical and ethical method on the Hutchins recommendations, proposes an elaborate and reasoned plan for a journalism based on trust, justice, stewardship, and truth-telling. Over the Commission's findings, he layers the communitarian thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose constructs of "internal goods" or virtues and "external goods" (profit, fame and glory) allow Lambeth to draw a middle-of-the-road ethical approach, attempting to do justice to Hutchins while advocating autonomy (23).
Lambeth, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, uses what he calls a "neo-Aristotelian" approach to build a concept of "civic" journalism in which all parties--reporters, editors, readers/viewers, cross-media partners and, to some extent, advertisers--are involved in a news package that seeks to bond all in momentum to improve society and democracy. In 1994, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication recognized Lambeth's movement by granting it a separate designation as an interest group within the organization.
Lambeth's academic partner in the movement is Jay Rosen, a New York University professor who has built his curriculum vita on the implementation and monitoring of public journalism. Rosen wants to push the news industry into activist social roles that make journalists advocates in community scenarios designed to grant citizens ownership in the news process while helping the press fulfill its moral obligations to the community good. Press critic Alicia Shepard writes:
According to the gospel of public journalism, professional passivity is passe; activism is hot. Detachment is out; participation is in. Experts are no longer the quote-machines of choice; readers' voices must be heard. (24)
There is considerable disparity not only in how best to execute the community-based strategy but also in what to call it precisely. Jim Batten, the Knight-Ridder CEO credited with planting the seed of the movement in 1988, said "civic" is a better fit than "public" because, presumably, the idea of a "public" media is threatening to those whose missions are to make a profit in the "private" business of media. Even so, Batten was clear in his charge to employees:
I think it's good that our people realize it's not enough to just lay out the wickedness of its world, the negatives in newspapers, and that they're also asking, How can I help my community? How can I help it do a better job?
By whatever name, the influence of Hutchins-based press philosophy extends to private foundations in and out of industry. David Matthews, as president of the Kettering Foundation, has been instrumental in helping bring Rosen to the front in planning and administering the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University. With further assistance from the American Press Institute, the project has developed into a network of editors and reporters experimenting with the "public" concept. Says Matthews, "If Americans are to reclaim and reinvigorate their political system, they will need a big assist from journalists who are concerned about the drift of politics and the character of public discourse." In partnership with the Poynter Institute, the Pew Foundation has joined in, fronting its effort with political debate strategist Ed Fouhy, whose primary mission is mobilizing media units to rescue political campaigns from consultants (25).
It is Rosen's project, however, that has gained the most notoriety and, accepting with little concern the rapidity with which it has gained momentum, he concedes, "We are making it up as we go along." In fact, his center proudly reported recently that "171 news organizations are working with the Project on Public Life and 95 initiatives are under way," ranging in scope from basic to elaborate and always "tailored to the town" (26). Asked recently about the backlash against public journalism by editors at some of the nation's prestige media outlets, Rosen conceded that the precepts of the approach threaten the autonomy that journalists traditionally enjoy under a libertarian press theory. But, he says, the concept demands that "people have to be engaged first and then they'll want to become informed." When reporters and editors begin to think that way, he asserts, they will reassess their roles (27).
This purpose-driven community-based approach is derivative of the more absolute and didactic formulations of the philosophy reflected in a strict communitarian approach that, like most other contemporary works on journalism's normative core, resurrects in part the ghost of Hutchins to assert journalism's responsibility to take a leadership role in rebuilding and restructuring a society that traditional liberal values helped put asunder. The theory claims to split its own path between government participation in an authoritarian or totalitarian structure and the laissez faire, hands-off philosophy. The communitarians do not adopt the Hutchins constructs wholly, but they hold firmly to the Commission's "accountability" notions and they clearly are shifting from a moderate stance to one of outright theory-building around the philosophy of Amitai Etzioni, MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch and others (28). Etzioni defines his philosophy as "people committed to creating a new moral, social and public order based on restored communities, without allowing puritanism or oppression" (29). Communitarians believe that Western liberalism, with its emphasis on individual freedom to act without harm to others, has damaged the social and political structure of America (30). Its leaders advocate "a range of measures against social irresponsibility, from drug testing for public transportation workers to stricter divorce, child support and gun control laws." Etzioni's personal assessment of communitarianism's potential is markedly similar to that described for public journalism:
We do not claim to have the answers to all that troubles America these days. However...if more and more Americans come forward and join together to form active communities...we will have many more ways to make our society a place in which individual rights are vigilantly maintained, while the seedbeds of civic virtue are patiently nurtured. (31)
Hutchins Commissioners and proponents of public journalism were not and are not suffering delusions or paranoia nor acting from misguided intentions; in fact, they were and are following behavioral patterns that mirrored those of their cohorts in the dominant social and cultural classes. In their struggles with some of these critically important issues, the accommodation of complexities and inconsistencies has required the mental rigor of an intellectual gentry. In different eras and in philosophically different ways, both groups are made up of middlebrows motivated toward harnessing what they believe to be powerful media effects. As technocrats, they can be trusted to act in the public interest, well trained individuals with professional values and skills that can turn media units toward valuable political and social purposes (32). As cultural guardians, they see their mission as one designed to bring the Arnoldian "best" into every livingroom in America. The sincerity of this belief is grounded in the fairly common goal of the democratic assumption, but the confounding paradox has pitted technocratic concerns for the transmissional aspects of journalism against the rituals that could provide access for every segment of society. On both fronts and in both eras, the technocrats and guardians agreed that press freedom entitled each citizen to a voice in low journalism and that a publisher's obligation was to avoid the arrogance so often associated, then as now, with the position that freedom of the press is the province of only those who own one. In both eras, too, the scholars envisioned media as adult education tools for democracy, but thus far they have not been able to determine who to trust in the business of regulating the messages. The default seems always to fall on social responsibility, the middle ground that demands self control in the spirit of compromise (33).
Even so, these middlebrow attempts to "democratize" American media through various measures of control have been relatively unsuccessful experiments in social and cultural engineering. Success would have been demonstrated by consumptive behavior leading to a fully informed electorate capable and desirous of proscribed newspapers, books and ideas that would help them make rational decisions in the exercise of their individual civic duties and responsibilities.
The failure to influence consumption and the practice of journalism, in fact, may be related to a lack of vision and some serious oversights and omissions. The Hutchins Commission, while spending considerable time trying to define the media, settled almost exclusively on newspapers. After the Commission's report went to press, American print journalism grew no new enduring and significant papers until the launch in the 1970s of USA Today, a nationally distributed paper whose popularity cannot be correlated with financial success but, rather, the ability of a media conglomerate to keep it funded through corporate subsidy. During the same time, hundreds of television stations sprouted, many of them in the decade immediately following the Commission's report.
Four years after the Commission's report, Dwight Eisenhower emerged as the first television president and by 1960, a nation on the brink of becoming fully enveloped in mass consumption was in the first stages of addiction to television and other emerging cultural forms that demanded more of the senses than the mind. It is easy to note, then, that the Commission's part in attempting to build an American middlebrow tumbled in the consumptive rampage that today offers 500 channels and interactive video that has so little in common with the democratic assumption, which equates good, reliable information with good, rational decision-making.
The proponents of public journalism have expanded the scope of the community-focus approach but they still concentrate most of their efforts on newspapers. Late last year, Louis Harris and Associates sought to determine the dominant sources of news and what the public expects of the media today. The survey results showed that one-third of Americans depend solely on local television for news, the seven minutes that precede the dominant segments of sports and weather. That was more than twice the number who favored newspapers and twice the number who depend on 30-minute daily network newscasts. Seventy-five percent of those polled say they support the media's watchdog role, well defined in Hutchins and public journalism formulas, and 67 percent say the media has an obligation to protect the public from abuses. Sixty-three percent agree the press plays an important role in democracy; but, more important, the self-regulating correctives so critical to Hutchins and public journalism get little support. Sixty-five percent says the press should "simply report the facts" and stay out of the business of solving problems or correcting "what they believe are inaccuracies and distortions in the statements of public figures." The Harris poll reported that 85 percent approve of news councils, an idea embedded in the Hutchins report, while 84 percent want a "fairness doctrine" and 70 percent court-imposed fines for inaccurate reporting (34). In other words, the public prefers many of the things that neither Hutchins nor public journalists specifically address: television with less context and more external controls, whether they be by government or quasi-governmental agencies.
As the technocratic myopia missed the emergent television in 1947, the public journalists of the 1990s seem to be overlooking the public's message that well-intentioned efforts to envelop them in democracy is a paternalistic attempt to lead them where they may not want to go. We as scholars accept, for example, that a small and homogenous group of men can determine the public's collective taste and proclivities, drawing the boundaries for a new theory that, wittingly or not, helps guide the most powerful low journalism system in the world. There is no shortage of ambition here but the nostrums appear to contradict in important ways what the public actually perceives as the role of the press in democracy.
However easy it might be to dismiss these public journalism constructs as quaint, irrelevant and foolishly contrived methods of cultural and social control, there must be some consideration given to the futility of such an exercise. Reaching a democratic mean becomes impossible when the middle ground has succumbed to the exponential burgeoning of tenants occupying what avant garde scholars consider America's cultural slums. Like their mid-century cohorts in gentility, the public journalists are seeking methods of accommodation that, considering their total lack of experience in the lower strata, only could approximate evidence to support their solutions (35). To be sure, some of the past and present criticisms and observations, although not original, have helped guide and lend credence to those involved in the serious study of media criticism. They, too, provide the foundation for accountability, which undergirds the recent attempts at communitarian theory-building.
But too many variables cloud the equation when values that work as means somehow get reduced to insistence that they serve as ends. In his own rather mean-spirited way, Dwight Macdonald warned us about strange bedfellows and what can happen from unprotected cultural intercourse. Despite his elitist and arrogant scoldings of anything at the center or low end of the culture spectrum, Macdonald's 1960 analysis of "midcult" contained an optimistic compromise that, in retrospect, was more enduring than all of the philosophies and theories put forth in this discourse. He proposed using the cultural diversity inherent in fragmented society to the benefit of all classes of cultural consumers. With remarkable foresight, he posited that pay television, nothing more than a linear extension of cable as a mere figment of entrepreneurial imagination, could be an answer for those who "would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing" (36). In the end, Macdonald wrote, the fight is a foolish one:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the mass demand or its satisfaction (and further stimulation), is a question as academic as it is unanswerable. The engine is reciprocating and shows no signs of running down. (37)
Joan Shelley Rubin asserts that the engine, in fact, may be the powerplant driving "what H.G. Wells called the 'race between education and catastrophe'" and that the dissipation of the middlebrow leaves American culture naked to further corruption. Rubin writes:
Given the widespread disregard for the possession of liberal learning, the popularizers...appear themselves apostles of a shattered faith. More broadly, while the market remains capable of disseminating the importance of reading--not long ago a cereal box urged breakfast eaters to discover the world of books and libraries--its capacity to subvert genuine understanding and autonomy survives and flourishes as well. (38)
That may be so, but if there is an enduring lesson in the rise and fall of this Hutchins Commission middlebrow, it is in John Dewey's assertion that first principles are specific to time, place and, most important, circumstances (39). In the 1940s, when the Hutchins Commission was conducting its deliberations, the remnants of Victorian ideals of democratization were being subsumed by consumerization. By 1960, when Macdonald was writing about television, social responsibility had become an artifact in cultural history. The discourse of the Hutchins Commissioners reflected a futile, if admirable, struggle to adapt to consumer society, to accommodate the complexities and conflicts that inflicted modernity and its printed word. The public journalists face equally challenging tasks today but their attempts to impose technocratic control or to strike a cultural mean are no more promising than at mid-century.