Cmu. 200. January 4, 2000.

Hypothetical situations.

What is the role of the media in the United States?

How broad should press freedom be?

Who benefits from press freedom?

1. Setting: itís September 1999, two months before the November election. The Seattle Times, in an editorial, has attacked Initiative 695 (known primarily for reducing auto license tabs to $30) as an unwise move. One member of the editorial-page staff argues that the news staff on the newspaper (a separate staff) should not cover the pro I-695 forces at all. "We should cover the opponents or just do nothing at all," she said.

2. As part of his attack on world terrorism, U.S. President Bill Clinton has asked Congress to declare war on Iraq. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer criticizes the recommendation, saying it would waste human life and wouldnít really counteract terrorism. The FBI, on the Presidentís orders, moves to close the newspaper down saying it is a danger to U.S. security. Clinton says, "This kind of loose, unfounded criticism of the presidency just undermines the country and its security."

If the FBI cannot close the newspaper, it wants it to be under strict orders not to criticize the President or his policy recommendations.

Should federal officials be able to close, or at least censor, the newspaper?

3. Reporters from local TV station KING have uncovered information indicating that nearly 30 percent of U.S. commercial planes are highly unsafe under certain conditions (a combination of age of the plane, weight [passengers, luggage] and time spent in the air -- with longer flights far more likely to have problems than shorter flights). KINGís investigation shows that current federal air safety rules donít address these problems and the airlines themselves have done nothing to address the issue even though they are probably aware of it. Three recent plane crashes may have been related to this particular problem.

KING decides to air its report this evening on its 5 p.m. news show. A group of U.S. airlines (including United, American and Northwest) protest, arguing that the report will just worry travelers. One airline executive said, "It was bad enough when nobody would take a plane on December 31, but this will just ruin us. Reports such as this one will just inflame the public and case irreparable damage to our business." The airlines go to court to get an injunction to halt the report.

4. In an episode of Ally McBeal scheduled for early February, Ally discovers sheís pregnant and decides to get an abortion. Some anti-abortion groups protest the show and want to stop it from being aired. "This sort of show gives young girls the wrong ideas about abortion," said one anti-abortion activist. "Shows such as this should be stopped." One anti-abortion group is planning to take out newspaper ads assailing abortion; another is seeking a court injunction to halt televising of the show.

Role of Mass Media in Democratic Society

Democracy --

demos: people

kratia: rule

depends upon information.

Media facilitate information flow.

1. Idea of Democracy

People are rational

General premise is that people are intelligent.

Perhaps they are fooled some of the time, but in the end, they will make the right decisions.

Knowledge crucial

If people are going to make the right kinds of decisions in governing themselves, they need a wide array of information.

Diversity, competing ideas needed

Ideally, they should know all of their options, and then they can decide which is the best option.

Imagine that we need to raise $100 million in this state in the next year. We might have a variety of options:

1. Raise tuition

2. Raise property taxes

3. Raise business and occupation taxes

4. Deregulate state liquor industry

5. Privatize some governmental services

6. Sell some of the public lands...

Each of these options would have some proponents and opponents. A key hallmark of democracy is that you need to you -- you should -- explore these options, let people debate these issues.

Quickly, youíd find perhaps that raising tuition is one of the dumbest of all of these ideas. Might prevent people from going to universities and in the end limit businesses operating in the state and thus hurt the economy. Net loss of revenue.

The idea is that the need for this idea to compete for public attention, public support, is crucial.


Truth emerges from debate

Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. No one has perfect wisdom. Collectively, however, we might come up with something pretty good.



2. Media Support Democracy

Given that people are able to govern themselves if they have information -- and competing ideas: the media are an important source of information.



We rely on the media to tell us whatís going on. We simply unable to experience everything of importance to us in the society. Media provide a valuable

way of finding out whatís going on.

Media tell us whatís going on that should concern us -- problems facing us; or that things are going well.

What are some aspects of media surveillance? - of media telling us whatís going on.

(a) sports scores

(b) television shows

(c) movie times

(d) how an election was decided

(e) computer viruses and how to respond

(f) health viruses and how to protect ourselves




Interpretation and context

Media, at least when they operate optimally, donít just give us a pile of facts. Instead, they try to tell us whatís important. They interpret facts; they provide context so that we might make sense of the issues.

e.g., context:

1,000 teenagers start smoking every day.

How many teenagers are there?

How much do they smoke?

How long do they smoke?

Why do they start smoking?


3. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stipulates that "Congress shall make no law...abridging freedom of speech or press."

Special protection for press

No other institution, other than religion, singled out for such special protection.

No mention of other businesses: just the press.


Press not a passive conduit

Key issue here is that the press should not just be passive in relaying information to us. Reporters and editors are supposed to make decisions about whatís important, how to interpret issues, what to make of things.

They are supposed to be fair in all of this; not BIASED. But not passive.

Press: create, channel friction

The best thing the media can do is to induce people to debate -- to encourage debate in an open society.

More debate the better. Not less.

Attempt to key us focused on what matters. Press as an agent of keeping focus on what matters.



Watchdog role: check on power of government

Within the context of US experience.

Sense that government, when unwatched, is not going to be trustworthy.

Heritage of the U.S. Revolution = notion that Power corrupts.

Key assumption here: press speaks for the people, represents the interests of the people, and serves as a check on the government.

Holds government accountable; makes visible what it is doing, so that people can judge.

Error inevitable in debate

Press not faultless.

In open and wide debate, invariably going to have errors.

Must tolerate some error.

Trade off: error better than repression.

Rationale for FOP: for nation, not press

The reason we have freedom of the press is to make sure that democracy is able to function. Thatís the key yardstick here. We donít have press freedom just for the sake of the press itself.

FOP produces responsive government, lawful change

With press freedom, we then know what the contrasting views in society are -- and we can accommodate them.

Safety valve theory: Allowing friction and actually encouraging it means a free and open society confronts its problems, lets dissidents say what is on their mind, and ultimately preserves the entire system. The major threat to a governmental system actually is suppression of ideas; suppression invariably leads to incredible pressure.

Look at Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Soviet Union: they all crumbled.

4. Alternatives to free press

Government censorship

In a situation in which government can stop a free press, we usually end up with a fairly stunted society.

Government officials make key decisions, not the people. The system derives, then, not from the people, but from those on top. It is essentially:


Limits ideas, options

Without the free exchange of ideas and opinions, we have less sense of options.

Self serving

Censorship usually serves the interests of those who are in charge of censorship.


Governments use censorship to stop dissidents, criticism.

Stopping criticism can hinder formation of public opinion.

example from the readings: China and hot weather.