The media, the news, and democracy: revisiting the Dewey-Lippman debate.

Author:Champlin, Dell P.
Position:Media coverage of Dewey-Lippman

As an institution, the news media enjoy a special status derived from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and from the societal expectation that in a democracy a free press is necessary to protect the public interest. As a capitalist enterprise, however, the news media are subject to the same pressures from pecuniary interests as any other private business (Veblen 1988; Croteau and Hoynes 2001). While meeting their dual responsibilities to the public interest and to their private shareholders has always been a difficult balancing act, the rise of large media conglomerates and the resulting concentration of ownership in the media industry have greatly tipped the scale toward the pecuniary and away from the public interest role (Champlin and Knoedler 2002). In this paper, we will examine this triumph of pecuniary interests through the lens of a famous 1920s debate between journalist Walter Lippman and philosopher John Dewey, in which they deliberated not whether, but how, the media should protect the public interest. We then examine news coverage of three recent issues that demonstrate different aspects of the public interest role of the media: (1) the recent proposed changes in media ownership rules; (2) the 2000 Presidential election; and (3) the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We will conclude by discussing possible solutions to the threat to democracy posed by the conglomerate commercialization of the news and the decline of the public interest function.

The Public Interest Role of the Media and the Lippman versus Dewey Debate

The obligation of the media to serve the public interest has been recognized at least since the 1920s, when it was first codified in government legislation regulating radio broadcasting (Krasnow 1997; Rowland 1997a). The special status of the news media in American public policy has an even longer history as the only industry protected with special rights by the U.S. Constitution. The news media, in turn, have long recognized that these special rights conferred certain responsibilities to serve the public interest. Journalists, newspapers, and broadcasters incorporated public interest language in professional codes of ethics and corporate standards and practices (Croteau and Hoynes 200 l). Media companies protected their news divisions from excessive commercialism and treated them as prestigious "loss leaders" that provided a vital public service, not as profit centers that provided saleable products to consumers (McChesney 1999, 51). (1) To quote James W. Carey (1993, 3) on that point, "The press justifies itself in the name of the public. The press exists to inform it, to serve as its extended eyes and ears and to represent and protect its interest."

Between 1922 and 1925, then U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover convened a series of national radio conferences that culminated in passage of the Radio Act of 1927 (Krasnow 1997; Rowland 1997a,b). According to Williard Rowland, regulation of broadcasting was based on the widely held belief that the spectrum constituted a scarce natural resource and that it should be publicly owned. In the opening address to the fourth conference in 1925, Hoover stated, "The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for the public benefit" (quoted in Rowland 1997b, 370). The public interest standard for broadcasting was adopted by the Federal Radio Commission in 1928 and was later written into the Communications Act of 1934, the legislation that regulated electronic media until the 1996 Telecommunications Act (Croteau and Hoynes 2001; Krasnow 1997; Rowland 1997b).

Indeed, the public interest standard applied to the new industry of broadcasting in the 1920s was adapted from earlier public utility regulation. The often-quoted phrase found in early communications law, "the public interest, convenience, and necessity," was borrowed from public utility law (Aufderheide 2002). Thus, the idea of a public interest standard in government regulation actually dates much further back than the 1920s. Rowland (1997a,b) argued that the public interest standard was developed at the state level in the early nineteenth century and was adapted to federal regulation in the late nineteenth century. He quoted the following passage from the 1877 Supreme Court decision, Munn v. Illinois:

 When ... one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good to the extent of the interest he has thus created. (Quoted in Rowland 1997a, 318) 

The expectation that the media serve the public interest is only partly based on the historical treatment of the broadcast spectrum as a publicly owned resource. Broadcasting is not "regulated" in the traditional public utility sense. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the power to grant licenses, but it does not have the public utility commission's power to establish rates and pricing. Moreover, the public interest as applied to broadcasting differs substantially from the usual meaning in utility regulation. Public utility commissions have traditionally been charged with protecting consumers by ensuring that a particular commodity produced by a natural monopoly provider is available at a reasonable price. In many cases, this charge has meant protecting the industry's economic welfare as well as, or instead of, the consumer's welfare, leading critics to charge that regulators had been "captured" by the very companies they regulate (Aufderheide 2002). In the 1980s, the FCC adopted a similar consumer protection model when Mark Fowler, President Ronald Reagan's FCC chairman, announced that the "television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures" (Croteau and Hoynes 1997, 25). Sirailar statements have been made by Michael Powell, FCC chairman for a time under President George W. Bush.

However, the Fowler philosophy is not universally accepted as the appropriate regulatory approach. For example, David Croteau and William Hoynes (1997) argued that broadcasting should not be regulated as a commodity with the public treated solely as consumers, because the "news" is not solely a market commodity. In contrast to a toaster, the "news" has a special function in our democracy. It is for this reason that a free media has been seen by many social commentators as crucial to a flourishing democracy and that media enterprises have been expected to operate according to different standards from those of the typical cost-minimizing, profit-maximizing business enterprise. (See, for example, Moyers 2003.)

The special role of the press in a democracy was the subject of an important 1920s debate (2) between Lippman and Dewey after a massive public relations campaign was used by the government to build support for the United States' participation in the First World War. (3) Dewey and Lippman argued about whether the press should serve as leaders or as teachers of the citizenry in the democracies they serve. (4) Given their clear articulation of two distinct but alternate paths to serving the public interest, we believe that their debate is instructive in understanding the deterioration in the quantity and quality of our modern news.

We turn first to Lippman. In his influential treatise Public Opinion, first published in 1923, Lippman explored the question of how the "world outside and the pictures in our heads" are represented to a democracy through the lens of a commercial press (3). Lippman's main argument was that "the nature of democracy had fundamentally changed" (Fallows 1996, 236), given the large scale of our modern society. It was therefore impracticable for the average citizen to be sufficiently well informed to participate in direct democracy, given the complexity of modern society and the level of expertise needed to comprehend issues of economics or science. Rather than striving for an impossible ideal of participatory democracy in complex societies, successful democracies would instead have to rely on trained experts in government and journalism to make decisions and to disseminate those decisions to the citizenry. The experts in government had the responsibility to make the right decisions, while the role of the press, according to Lippman, was to lay out to the public the various conclusions derived by these experts. In short, the public interest role of the press in the age of a complex mass society was not to engage the citizenry to participate directly in their own democracy, but to evaluate complex information and inform the public. (5) However, in his discussion of the Lippman-Dewey debate, C. Edwin Baker (1998) emphasized that this function of passing along information also includes a crucial "watchdog" role. That is, while the role of the press is not to challenge governmental information or encourage direct participation by the public, the press does have a duty to inform the public fully about the actions taken by governmental elites and experts. This knowledge protects against corruption and incompetence.

In contrast, Dewey argued that democracy required active engagement by the citizenry in helping to decide the great and small issues of the day. Recognizing that new technologies brought about broader communities of interest, he argued, nonetheless, that "it is a matter of deliberate effort to sustain and extend" democracy (1916, 87). Thus, in his view, both government and the press shared the responsibility to "figure out how to engage the entire public in the decisions that would affect them all in the end" (Fallows 1996, 237). In other words, all members of a given democracy had responsibilities. Citizens had to become informed about important issues; teachers had to provide citizens with the tools to use the information they would receive; and politicians and communicators had to engage the public by disseminating the key...

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