Democracy and The Press

Sunday, April 29, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 4, 2010

What Is It

Our founding fathers believed that a free press would serve democracy by promoting unfettered political debate and expose the actions of the government to the harsh scrutiny of an informed and engaged populace.  Today, however, large media conglomerates have become part of the entrenched power structure and are driven as much by profit as by a sense of public mission.  Is it still possible to believe that the press lives up to the lofty ideals of our founding fathers?  John and Ken are joined by former TV news anchor and investigative journalist Leslie Griffith for a program recorded live at the Marsh theatre in Berkeley, California.

Listening Notes

“Freedom of the Press” is a constitutional right, guaranteed by the First Amendment and put in the Bill of Rights by the founding fathers of our nation. But is freedom of the press really in our best interests? Ken argues, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, that truth is the enemy of government control, that freedom of the press is the only way to ensure that our press is not mere propaganda. But, as John points out, there can be control without collapse. After all, doctors and lawyers receive licenses, why not journalists? And the government rates everything, even steaks, why can’t the government rate journalists? Could there be government regulation of the press without entirely destroying the necessarily independent perspective of the media?

Ken and John are joined by Leslie Griffith to discuss these questions. Leslie, a casualty of the ruthless corporatization of the media, points out that the current press is certainly the worst in our nation’s recent history. John and Ken agree that the first amendment does not seem to have successfully ensured that the press provides independent opinions. The nature of our capitalist press entails that the media only provides the opinions of their parent corporations. But, as philosophers, our question remains to be answered: Should ‘freedom of the press’ be sacrificed to free the press from its corporate masters?

Ken wonders if the press isn’t simply capitalizing on human nature. Lots of current research has shown that confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information which confirms one’s preconceptions, is a prevalent and powerful force in the human psyche. Perhaps the press simply tells people what they want to hear. If so, should the government have the authority to force people to hear something different? Leslie seems to think that it should, that, in her words, “too stupid to be on TV oughta be a standard.” John points out that excellent information is out there to find on the internet, from foreign news agencies, and that, if people were determined to find the truth, they could within our modern, hyper-connected world.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:20): Zoe Corneli investigates how journalists in the SF bay area have responded to the media crisis. She talks to Michael Stoll, executive director of the San Francisco Public Press. Stoll fears that the future of the press could become “a million websites referring to each other, but no new information coming out.” In response, he and a group of friends started up a new local newspaper, a physical paper with great local reporting, comics and a crossword puzzle.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:15): Ian Shoales’ unfettered speech informs us on how the founding fathers did not themselves put much stock in the first amendment. Our second president, John Adams, signed the “Alien and Sedition act,” which made it illegal to insult the government!