Communication Currents

Forgotten Lessons for Journalism’s Future

December 1, 2010
Mass Communication

With journalistic institutions in crisis, a look back to earlier discussions about journalism’s future is warranted. Typically during such historical moments, society as a whole grapples with determining the press’s democratic responsibilities. The outcomes of such debates can have a dramatic impact on the media system’s trajectory; it is also during these moments when alternatives normally considered off-limits are taken seriously.  One such instance took place in the postwar 1940s around a landmark debate: the Commission on Freedom of the Press, or better known as the Hutchins Commission.

Composed of many of the day’s most prominent American intellectuals, the Hutchins Commission wielded considerable influence, and it would help establish the ethical foundations for the modern U.S. press system. The late legal scholar C. Edwin Baker noted that the Commission’s general report “provides the most influential modern account of the goals of journalistic performance” and is ‘‘the most important, semiofficial, policy-oriented study of the mass media in U.S. history,” its tenets treated as the “official Western view” of the press’s public service mission.

The commissioners entered the discussion with two implicit questions: What is the role of media in a democratic society, and how should that role be monitored? After numerous meetings, consultations with a wide range of experts, and six book-length studies on the U.S. media system, the commissioners essentially concluded that media should practice social responsibility but remain self-regulated. However, archival evidence, including unpublished reports and transcripts, suggests that along the way, a number of more radical alternatives were discussed but ultimately jettisoned.

Early in its deliberations, Commissioner Zechariah Chafee described one of the Commission’s central tasks as deciding “whether the giants should be slain or persuaded to be good.” The implication was that, in theory, the “giants” (large media institutions) could be dismantled—presumably by government. But the idea of even light governmental oversight was met with fierce opposition from the newspaper industry, which argued that regulation was antithetical to American press freedoms. Although grassroots activists and progressive policymakers were pushing for a more regulated media system, newspaper publishers benefited from an increasingly right-wing and reactionary political landscape. The red-baiting of even mild reform efforts as communistic—then as now—became a favorite tactic. Within this postwar context, a social contract was established that continues to frame many of the discourses and assumptions surrounding today’s journalism crisis, especially the notion that government should maintain a largely hands-off position toward media institutions (even if this is demonstrably untrue).

What has been given insufficient attention—and is all the more striking given its blue-ribbon status—is that, at least for a time, the Commission entertained structural alternatives to the self-regulated, commercial press system that Americans today often think of as part of the natural order of things. Indeed, the Hutchins Commission’s unpublished transcripts suggest that fairly radical nonprofit models were considered early in its discussions. For example, the commissioners declared that “the service of news” should not be left solely in the hands of “private agencies.” They suggested reclassifying the press as a common carrier or a public utility that guaranteed access to critical information, and discussed how a federal agency modeled after the FCC should regulate newspaper content, especially in one-newspaper towns. They considered forming citizen councils to oversee local media and proposed aggressive antitrust interventions to break up and prevent newspaper chains. They discussed increasing competition by aiding start-up newspapers with government-guaranteed loans, subsidies, and reduced postal rates. Archibald MacLeish, the primary author of the report and arguably the most radical voice on the Commission, felt that if everyone was not guaranteed access to the press, then the very principle of “freedom of the press” was rendered farcical. Ultimately, however, internal disputes and external pressures led the Commission to retreat from its more radical proposals. Instead, it chose to advance ideas bolstering self-regulation of the commercial press, even while keeping open the possibility for future governmental interventions.

The postwar settlement that emerged from this and similar debates was marked by three assumptions: that media should remain self-regulated, practice nominal social responsibility, and be protected by a negative freedom of the press—negative in the sense that it conceived freedom of the press as protecting media owners from government intrusion and thus privileging their rights over those of listeners, readers, and the broader public. In other words, it elevated a libertarian “freedom from” (as in publishers’ and broadcasters’ private property being protected from government regulation) over a social democratic “freedom for” or “freedom to” (as in the public’s freedom to have access to a diverse and informative media system). This settlement consolidated an industry-friendly arrangement that foreclosed on alternative models, discouraged structural critiques, and assumed that largely unregulated media markets would satisfy the communication needs a democracy requires. Although significant divergences occurred, like the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the self-regulation model of media governance has remained the dominant paradigm for the past six decades.

But this was not an inevitable outcome, as suggested by both an ongoing tradition of government involvement in media, such as postal subsidies for newspapers, and a number of missed opportunities for a more affirmative role for governmental regulation. Found even in the final postwar resolutions that benefited corporate interests were seeds for an alternative vision. Key court decisions in the 1940s placed markers for a more expansive view of the First Amendment. And even within the watered-down proposals of the Hutchins Commission were caveats leaving the door open to state intervention if the commercial press were to fail in its responsibilities.

Increasingly, evidence suggests that the commercial press has indeed failed, both as a viable business model and as a means for a robust public service-oriented journalism. Moreover, the Internet, which many observers hoped would organically replace traditional news operations, has thus far failed to yield sustainable journalism (as opposed to commentary). However, history has handed us a critical juncture during which a healthy press system, with the right policies and the political will, can be firmly established out of the ashes of the old. This new system would cut across types of media and digital platforms. But it will take government intervention—in much the same way that government helped incubate what would become the Internet—to help nurture new experimental models less beholden to commercial pressures.

More than 60 years ago the Hutchins Commission faced many of the same challenges we face today during a similar journalism crisis and boldly stated the problem for what it was: the result of deeply systemic flaws endemic to commercial media. But then, at a crucial moment, when equally bold solutions were needed, the Commission shrunk from its task and fell back on palatable halfway measures, helping ensure that future generations would face similar crises. This postwar settlement would impact much of what Americans would see and hear in their media for decades to come. The American public has inherited the legacy of this failed media reform project that left intact a nominally socially responsible, self-regulated, commercial media system. The time has arrived for a renegotiated social contract. The Hutchins Commission, although ultimately failing, pointed the way. We must learn from its mistakes and move forward with bold new models.

About the author (s)

Victor Pickard

New York University

Assistant Professor