Navigating the rush-hour traffic on his way to work in January 2009, Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was gunned down by two assassins on motorcycles.
Develop an understanding of the essential role journalism plays in democracy;
Explore the specific functions the press performs to fulfill democratic needs;
Consider the factors that influence whether and how well journalism can perform those functions.
He knew it was coming.
For years his newspaper, the Sunday Leader, had exposed government corruption and questioned its conduct of the war against the separatist Tamil Tigers—reporting that had already subjected Wickramatunga and his family to beatings and no-holds-barred intimidation. Just days before his murder, he received a message scrawled in red ink on a page of his newspaper: “If you write you will be killed.”
So why did he do it? Why did he keep writing in the face of such threats? In an editorial he wrote anticipating his assassination and published three days after his death, Wickramatunga offers a compelling answer, describing how he saw his role as a journalist and the role of a free press in society:
The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it . . . We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view.
That Wickramatunga would put himself in harm’s way—and ultimately pay with his life—for the “calling” of journalism demonstrates a singular kind of courage. But the very idea that simply doing journalism put him at risk might be a little difficult to understand from the vantage point of the United States, where journalists can generally report on and even criticize the actions of government without fear of violence. That freedom is easy for us to take for granted, but was grimly elusive for Wickramatunga. In that final editorial, he offered this blunt prediction: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
What can we, separated by thousands of miles and great historical and cultural differences, learn about American journalism from the assassination of an editor in Sri Lanka? A lot. In fact, if you substitute “pounds” for “rupees” in the quotation above, you could easily believe you were reading something penned by a patriot during the American Revolution. (OK, so you’d have to substitute “powdered wigs” or something for “styling gel” too. But you get the idea.) Why do these ideas sound so familiar to us? Because they echo a widely shared understanding of what democracy requires of journalism, and of the kind of freedom necessary for journalism to do what democracy requires.
In America, that widely shared understanding has its roots in American colonial experience and the subsequent revolution, particularly in the
background and mindsets of the group of men who would become the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The colonists’ reasons for revolt largely centered on what was considered to be the tyranny—economic and political—of their British rulers. An ocean away from the Crown, the colonies wanted to shake off the inequity of taxation without representation and the indignity of being forced, after a long period in which the government practiced a “hands-off” policy toward them and they began to develop a distinct, “American” identity, to re-submit to British authority. (We are skipping over a ton of really interesting history here in the name of brevity. Promise us you’ll read up on press history on your own.) But once they managed to successfully break free, they would still need to come up with a system of government to manage their affairs. What would it look like? Something completely different.
FIGURE 1.1 English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) was a key Enlightenment figure whose ideas were very influential on the Founding Fathers of the United States. Source: Georgios Kollidas/ Shutterstock.
In addition to their personal experiences as colonists, the framers of the U.S. Constitution also were steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, particularly that of John Locke, which emphasized the power and authority of individual reason over other-arbitrary—sources of authority, such as the state. In very over-simplified terms, this emphasis assumes that individuals are free to exercise reason and that reason is the source of truth. Perhaps you can begin to see where all this is heading: A basic idea that people, exercising reason, are best equipped to govern themselves, to make sense of the competing “truths” in the marketplace of ideas, and the related conclusion that government power must be harnessed in the service of the people, not the other way around.
So, how might a free press assist in that self-governance? By acting as a check on government power and by creating a space in which claims about truth could be debated. This notion of the press contradicts a tenet of English common law during colonial times that sounds, well, tyrannical. It’s called “seditious libel.” A libel is a statement that harms someone’s
reputation. The “seditious” part refers to a libel about government authority. In England, this was a crime punishable by life imprisonment.
▶ DEMOCRACY: A system of government in which the people govern them selves. Typically characterized by free elections in which every adult can participate, freedom of expression, and an independent judiciary, this kind of self-governance stands in contrast to monarchies, dictatorships, theocracies and other forms in which an unelected person or small group of people hold power.
It gets better. (Or worse.)
“The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” This feature of the law essentially said that the truth of whatever libelous thing you dared to say against the government didn’t matter. In fact, the more true the criticism, the bigger trouble you would be in for voicing it. Imagine what a law like that can do to the marketplace of ideas. Shut it down altogether, that’s what.
When the framers turned their attention to drafting the founding documents of the United States, they saw vestiges of English law such as seditious libel to be contrary to what their experiment in democratic government would require. Not only did it violate Enlightenment notions of reason, but it also ran contrary to more practical concerns about how to check tyranny and discuss and debate public affairs. (Seditious libel, sadly, crops up again and again in American history, typically during times of war. You can take some comfort in the fact that it has been repeatedly beaten back.)
Among those founding documents is the Bill of Rights, drafted by James Madison, which declares freedom of speech and of the press to be basic rights. (You’ll learn much more about the First Amendment in Chapter 7
.) The need—or lack of need—for a document to enumerate such basic rights was the topic of much debate. In fact, some colonists didn’t want to ratify the U.S. Constitution without such a list. Nevertheless, if a list were to be drawn up, certainly freedom of expression would have to be on it. As Madison later wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
In his overview of the twists and turns the discussion about the Bill of Rights took, scholar Rodney Smolla gives us a sense of the magnitude of the framers’ accomplishments:
America had, for the first time in world history, put the people before the state. [ . . . ] In the Declaration of Independence and the grandiloquent opening of the Preamble to the Constitution, in which “We
the People” asserted their ultimate authority, America reversed the flow of power.
Now that we’ve got some background into why a free press is so intertwined with democracy, we will delve more deeply into just what, specifically, the press can or ought to do to support democratic governance. Interesting that the ideas of 18th Century American revolutionaries are echoed in the thinking of a 21st Century Sri Lankan newspaper editor, isn’t it?
Notice the three metaphors for the role of the press that Wickramatunga’s editorial contains: First, the mirror, where society can see itself, warts and all. Second, the watchdog that is supposed to start barking when those in power become corrupt, forget their roots and waste the people’s hard-earned money. Third, the marketplace of ideas, the space where even unpopular causes and contrary views can get a hearing. These metaphors for the press come up again and again, so it’s worth spending time here to examine them in some depth.
First, let’s compare those metaphors with how scholars talk about what democracy needs from the press. Five commonly discussed needs are: information dissemination, accountability, representation, deliberation and conflict resolution. Information dissemination is probably the easiest one to understand: Democracy requires some method for distributing all the information people need to make decisions and govern themselves. That means the press has to make decisions about what we need to know to do our jobs as citizens in a democracy, decisions that require exercising editorial judgment. Not all information is necessary for democracy to function, but without access to the essential information about governance, we can’t begin to make decisions in a complex global marketplace of ideas. Accountability refers to democracy’s need for some way to hold those in power responsible for their actions—actions that can affect all members of society. The value of accountability is as a corrective influence on government, which on its own is loath to revisit mistakes and concede error. Representation means that in a democratic system, all people, not just those with the most education, money or influence, are visible to others and have the chance to be heard.
The news media have a responsibility to ensure that those without an army of spokespeople still have a voice, that they can counter the voices of institutional power that might otherwise crowd them out of the marketplace of ideas. Deliberation and conflict resolution
address democracy’s need for a forum in which the interests of the public can be aired and debated and conclusions can be reached. The press exists, at least in part, so that a diversity of ideas find their way to the public conversation about the best course of action on the issues of the day.
What Wickramatunga knew—and what everyone from the framers and their Enlightenment philosophical forebears to 21st Century press critics have understood—is that when those needs go unfulfilled, democratic life is jeopardized. A free press is at the vanguard of all other liberties people in democracies enjoy. Without it, it’s difficult to have freedom of pretty much anything else. The 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press (known as the Hutchins Commission) put it this way:
Freedom of the press is essential to political liberty. Where men cannot freely convey their thoughts to one another, no freedom is secure. Where freedom of expression exists, the beginnings of a free society and
Who and What Was the Hutchins Commission?
Officially known as the Commission on Freedom of the Press, this group of 13 leading public intellectuals (but no journalists) was launched in 1942 “to examine areas and circumstances under which the press in the United States is succeeding or failing, to discover where free expression is or is not limited, whether by governmental censorship, pressures of readers or advertisers, the unwisdom of its own proprietors or the timidity of its managers,” its chair, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, told the New York Times.
The group met several times over the course of a couple years, interviewed many witnesses, and read lots of reports and documents. They didn’t like what they saw.
Freedom of the press was in danger of failing, the Commission concluded. But that danger was largely due to the press’ own poor performance and not some threat of government censorship. The evidence? Sensationalism,
an emphasis on the trivial and stereotypical, the “scoop” mentality, the blurring of lines between advertising and news, and (significantly, as you’ll see in later chapters) increased concentration of media ownership.
Commission members wrangled over the final report, some wanting to offer rather shocking prescriptions for government regulation of the press, others preferring to focus on improving the press by voluntary means. In the end, the 1947 report cautioned the press that, unless it ramped up its own accountability, regulation of some kind would come.
The report was a call to journalists to consider themselves “professionals.” It also marked the birth of what is known as “social responsibility theory” in journalism. That theory is based on the idea that with freedom comes responsibility. So, while journalism must be free from constraints on its actions, it still must act in ways that serve the public.
Journalists at the time hated the Commission report. No surprise there. But it has had an enduring influence on how people think about the role of journalism in society. That’s why you’ll see it pop up again and again throughout this and other books on American journalism.
Stephen Bates, Realigning Journalism with Democracy: The Hutchins Commission, Its Times, and Ours
(Washington, D.C.: The Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University, 1995). www.annenberg.northwestern.edu/pubs/hutchins/default.htm
a means for every extension of liberty are already present. Free expression is therefore unique among liberties: it promotes and protects all the rest.
So where do those metaphors fit in? The mirror, watchdog and marketplace of ideas metaphors describe the functions a press performs to meet those democratic needs. We can match up the mi...