Michael Luo |July 11, 2020 | The New Yorker
Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Time Inc., first proposed engaging a panel of scholars on the state of the American press in December of 1942. He suggested the idea to his friend Robert Maynard Hutchins, a legal and educational philosopher who, just over a decade earlier, at the age of thirty, had become the president of the University of Chicago. With the country mobilized for the fight against totalitarianism, Luce envisioned a philosophical inquiry that would reaffirm the foundations of freedom in the United States. Distrust of the media had become pervasive, and Luce believed that the public needed to better understand the purpose and function of the press. At first, Hutchins demurred, contending that the project would be too difficult to organize. Finally, in the fall of 1943, after months of Luce’s cajoling, he agreed to lead the effort.
On December 15, 1943, a group of academics and policymakers gathered for the first time at the University Club, in New York. Luce’s initial idea had been to enlist the University of Chicago’s philosophy department, but Hutchins went in a different direction, selecting luminaries from a range of disciplines. The group included Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian and ethicist; Charles E. Merriam, one of the nation’s leading political scientists; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., a Harvard historian; Archibald MacLeish, the librarian of Congress and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet; and William Ernest Hocking, a renowned philosopher of religion. None were journalists; Hutchins believed that the industry needed to be excavated by outsiders. The thirteen Americans and four international advisers, whom Hutchins called the Commission on the Freedom of the Press, would spend nearly three years evaluating American journalism. In a statement of principles, Hutchins told them that their purpose was to answer three questions: “What society do we want? What do we have? How can the press . . . be used to get what we want?”
In “An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined the Freedom of the Press” (Yale), Stephen Bates, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, re-creates the panel’s deliberations. As fascism advanced in Europe, there was a palpable sense that liberties were imperilled at home; in a Times Op-Ed, Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Vice-President, compared fascism to an “infectious disease” and warned against the “deliberate, systematic poisoning of the public channels of information.” Commission members worried about the forces of division in American society, the power of tribalism to warp political debate, and the press’s role in provoking discord. Americans were inhabiting “different worlds of fact and judgment,” John M. Clark, a Columbia University economist, said. Hocking, the philosopher of religion, considered the way a publication and its readers could create a closed system that was rage-filled, self-reinforcing, and profitable; another commission member, George Shuster, the president of Hunter College, warned that a one-sided press could “pull the house apart.”
“What society do we want? What do we have? How can the press . . . be used to get what we want?”
The Hutchins Commission, as it came to be known, met seventeen times, usually over two or three days, mostly in Chicago and New York, and heard from fifty-eight witnesses; its staff conducted two hundred and twenty-five additional interviews. On nearly every subject, it struggled to find consensus. In January of 1946, as the committee gathered to review a draft of a final report, Niebuhr suggested that it was facing an “insoluble problem”; perhaps definitive answers were out of reach. “If you have an insoluble problem of great complexities, and you illumine the complexities, you may be able to make quite a great contribution,” he said. The slim volume that the commission eventually produced, “A Free and Responsible Press,” is maddeningly contradictory in some places and impractical in others. Even so, it would go on to become a part of journalistic canon because it did what Niebuhr suggested: articulate the complexities of establishing and maintaining a free and responsible press.
Today, those complexities have deepened. And yet the work of the Hutchins Commission remains a touchstone, in part because of the way it lays out the virtues to which journalism can aspire in a democracy. The committee’s report begins by going back to first principles and making the case for the special status of the freedom of expression. It is the political liberty from which all others spring—the one that “promotes and protects all the rest.” “Civilized society . . . lives and changes by the consumption of ideas,” the report argues. “Therefore it must make sure that as many as possible of the ideas which its members have are available for its examination.” It’s because the press is the primary conduit through which people engage with the ideas they need to function as democratic citizens that it must be both protected and scrutinized.
In the mid-twentieth century, when the world was becoming more interconnected in unprecedented ways, the commission believed that society’s requirements for the press were “greater in variety, quantity, and quality than those of any previous society in any age.” It identified five essential mandates: first, providing “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events”; second, furnishing a forum for discussion of “all the important viewpoints and interests in the society”; third, offering a “representative picture” of society and its various groups; fourth, educating the public on “the ideals towards which the community should strive”; and fifth, making information available to everybody.
The press, the commission found, was failing to meet all of these requirements. To some degree, the problem was that journalists were driven to focus on “firstness, on the novel and sensational,” by the pressures of the market. But the news was also being skewed by the biases of the owners of media outlets, and by pressure from interest groups. The report ends with a series of broad recommendations, including raising the professionalism of the industry, encouraging journalists to hold each other accountable, and establishing an independent governmental agency to report regularly on the performance of the press. If these bland proposals have largely been forgotten, the committee’s ultimate conclusion—that the responsibility for fixing the press must fall most heavily upon the press itself—remains a bracing admonition. “The urgent and perplexing issues which confront our country, the new dangers which encompass our free society, the new fatefulness attaching to every step in foreign policy and to what the press publishes about it, mean that the preservation of democracy and perhaps of civilization may now depend upon a free and responsible press,” the report concludes. “Such a press we must have if we would have progress and peace.”
Nearly seventy-five years after the publication of “A Free and Responsible Press,” we face a crisis similar to, and perhaps deeper than, the one contemplated by the Hutchins Commission. Confidence in the media is at a nadir, the country’s political divisions are driving disagreement over basic facts, and half-truths, falsehoods, and propaganda have overrun digital platforms and polluted the news ecosystem. The press itself is also shrinking. According to a new report by the School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, between 2004 and 2019, nearly one in four American newspapers closed.
In the midst of all of this, some of journalism’s foundational practices are being reconsidered. The radicalism of the Trump era, with its populist, race-baiting President and a Republican Party that embraces deception as a political strategy, has caused a reëxamination of “objectivity” as a journalistic ideal. It has also ignited a debate about whether the press’s commitment to publishing a diverse set of ideas should be more circumscribed. Last month, the controversy over the decision by the Times’ Opinion section to publish an Op-Ed by the Republican senator Tom Cotton, which called for a mobilization of the military and an “overwhelming show of force” to quell “riots” in American cities, came to embody both disputes. On social media, the piece set off a rare open revolt among reporters and Opinion department staff. The NewsGuild of New York, which represents many Times journalists, issued a statement castigating what it called the “irresponsible choice” to publish the piece: “Its lack of context, inadequate vetting by editorial management, spread of misinformation, and the timing of its call to arms gravely undermine the work we do every day,” the statement read.
For some critics, the publication of Cotton’s Op-Ed represented the point of no return for the old mores of journalism. “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” Wesley Lowery, a former reporter at the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize, in 2016, for his reporting on policing, tweeted, after the piece was published. “We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” He later published his own Op-Ed in the Times that elaborated on his argument. “For years, I’ve been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts,” Lowery writes.
In response to Lowery, some argued that, as a concept, moral clarity was unrealistically binary, and in tension with Enlightenment liberalism. Others suggested that old values shouldn’t be abandoned. In a piece for the City Journal, a magazine on urban policy established by the conservative Manhattan Institute, the writer Paul Starobin revisits the statement that Adolph Ochs made after taking over as publisher of the Times, in 1896:
It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times gives the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.
Institutions like the Times, Starobin writes, should “stay truer to their roots” and pursue “a renaissance of journalism’s core values.”
It’s easy to flatten the complexity of the values to which journalism can aspire. Today, the idea of “objective” journalism is criticized as a kind of lazy, reflexive, neutrality, akin to stenography, in which one side’s assertions are heedlessly included alongside the other’s without proper evaluation; in fact, it emerged in the early twentieth century as a response to concerns that simply reporting facts by themselves could mislead readers. In the late nineteenth century, journalism, previously characterized by floridly written accounts, had come to embrace the pithy presentation of facts in a tradition known as “realism.” The Times, and the “inverted pyramid” story form, came to personify this standard of journalism as information. But, as Michael Schudson explains in “Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers,” journalists began to worry that this emphasis on the efficient conveyance of “facts” could leave reporters open to manipulation. In 1920, Walter Lippman, one of the founding editors of The New Republic, and Charles Merz, an editor at the New York World, published an exhaustive examination of the Times’ coverage of three years of the Russian revolution. They found that the paper had been overly credulous of the accounts of the State Department, the Russian Embassy, and others, publishing profoundly misleading stories on a subject of vast geopolitical importance. “In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see,” Lippman and Merz write. “Human beings are poor witnesses, easily thrown off the scent, easily misled by a personal bias, profoundly influenced by their social environment.”
The solution Lippman proposed was journalistic objectivity: a reimagination of journalism as a kind of scientific inquiry, subject to the disciplines of testing and verification. In his book “Liberty and the News,” Lippman argues that good reporting must be based on the “exercise of the highest scientific virtues”; the best reporters are not “slick persons who scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is.” To Lippman, who would become the most influential champion of journalistic objectivity, it was a matter of “ascribing no more credibility to a statement than it warrants” and maintaining an “understanding of the quantitative importance of particular facts.”
Although “A Free and Responsible Press” makes no direct reference to Lippman’s concept of journalistic objectivity, it finds the members of the Hutchins Commission wrestling with the same concepts. Even as they repeatedly emphasize the need to separate fact from opinion, the authors concede that there is “no factual report which is uncolored by the opinions of the reporter”; registering the dangers posed, in an increasingly fractious country, by reporting without adequate context, they suggest that “it is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” The commission notes that an “account of an isolated fact, however accurate in itself, may be misleading and, in effect untrue.” Such reporting could be especially dangerous in a divided and largely segregated country: “Factually correct but substantially untrue accounts of the behavior of members of one of these social islands can intensify the antagonisms of others towards them,” the committee writes.
“It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”
The commission—which, it should be noted, was composed entirely of white men—was deeply protective of the flow of ideas, even potentially harmful ones. Editors and reporters should “assume the duty of publishing significant ideas, contrary to their own, as a matter of objective reporting,” the report argues, lest those ideas “never reach the ear of America.” The committee was aware, however, of the many balancing acts such a duty would entail. “Valuable ideas may be put forth first in forms that are crude, indefensible, or even dangerous,” the report warns. “They need the chance to develop through free criticism as well as the chance to survive on the basis of their ultimate worth.” There are times when people disqualify themselves from participation in the conversation. “When the man who claims the moral right of free expression is a liar, a prostitute whose political judgments can be bought, a dishonest inflamer of hatred and suspicion, his claim is unwarranted and groundless,” the authors conclude. To be in error is permissible. “But the assumption that the man in error is actually trying for truth is of the essence of his claim for freedom. What the moral right does not cover is the right to be deliberately or irresponsibly in error.”
The modern newspaper op-ed page, with its submissions from outside contributors, did not exist at the time of the commission; it only became a widespread phenomenon after the Times introduced its version, in 1970. But it seems likely that the Hutchins Commission, if it existed today, would focus on the factual errors in the Cotton Op-Ed—the Times issued several corrections on the piece after publication—and on its capacity, and perhaps intention, to inflame, even as it would defend the Times’ goal of publishing a diversity of viewpoints. The committee notes that editors can exercise discretion in the ways views are conveyed to readers. “The individual whose views are not represented on an editorial page may reach an audience through a public statement reported as news, through a letter to the editor, through a statement printed in advertising space, or through a magazine article,” they write. Even then, “some seekers for space are bound to be disappointed,” and will have to go elsewhere to disseminate their ideas.
The opening chapter of “A Free and Responsible Press” includes a brief history of mass communication. During the time of the Founders, the authors write, it was a relatively simple matter to set up a printing press and become a publisher. “It was not supposed that any one newspaper would represent all, or nearly all, of the conflicting viewpoints regarding public issues,” the report explains. “Together they could be expected to do so, and, if they did not, the man whose opinions were not represented could start a publication of his own.” Each of these publications might have a relatively limited readership. By the mid-twentieth century, by contrast, the press had become “an enormous and complicated piece of machinery” with a vast reach. What troubled the committee was that a relatively small number of people controlled the machine. That worry shaped its belief that, as much as possible, media outlets needed to “show hospitality to ideas which their owners do not share.”
With the advent of the Internet, the situation today might recall the early days of the Republic, when anyone could hire a printing press. Now, though, digital platforms make distribution instantaneous, and anyone can build a globe-spanning media machine. On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit, legitimate ideas and news from the established press compete for attention and validation not just with valuable citizen journalism but also with misinformation, rumors, and conspiracy theories. “The result is not just that people fail to garner the basic factual information needed for them to fulfill their role as citizens,” the historian Sophia Rosenfeld writes, in “Democracy and Truth: A Short History,” from 2018. “Common ground—the low-level shared realm of common sense necessary to start a meaningful conversation in the public sphere with a random interlocutor—becomes impossible to locate.”
Media outlets that might be said to subscribe to the central premise of the Hutchins Commission report—that the press has certain fundamental responsibilities to those it serves—are also growing harder to find. Digital platforms, which have become de-facto news destinations, don’t operate according to the principles of journalism. The outlets that comprise the right-wing media also follow their own lodestar. In “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” from 2018, the scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts describe the “radicalization” of what they estimate to be one-third of the American media ecosystem. These outlets—which include extreme Web sites, such as Breitbart and InfoWars, as well as conservative media organizations, such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, which claim to abide by journalistic norms—are, they write, the “primary driver of disinformation and propaganda in the American public sphere.” Their coverage, moreover, is echoed and amplified on social platforms.
This is a disorienting, destabilizing moment for members of the press—or, as some have it, the “mainstream media.” The decline of truth in American democracy can feel irreversible, and seem to be the product of forces that extend far beyond journalism. But any hope of halting that decline must begin with a renewal of journalism’s commitment to its public responsibility, and with an examination of how its methods might best adapt to new circumstances. The continuing need for what the Hutchins Commission described as a “truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning” should mean a rededication to Lippman’s ideal of objectivity—a scrupulous, evidence-based approach to reporting. But, at a moment when common ground is disappearing, it also demands a greater awareness of how journalistic conventions of all kinds can distort coverage.
In 2007, the scholars and brothers Maxwell and Jules Boykoff published a paper in the journal Geoforum that examined climate-change coverage in major newspapers from 1988 through 2004. They found that a tendency to quote business and government figures in “dueling” perspectives, along with adherence to journalistic norms of “balance,” contributed to coverage that failed to correspond with established science, making it easier for the federal government to “defray responsibility and delay action regarding climate change.” The abandonment of rote language meant to convey neutrality, when the accumulated evidence does not warrant its inclusion, is essential to journalism’s truth-telling obligation. But the Boykoffs also cite “novelty,” “dramatization,” and “personalization” as distorting factors. “Instead of concentrating on power, context, and process,” they note, “the media tend to personalize social issues, focusing on the individual claims-makers who are locked in political battle.” As a result, “the macro is forgone in favor of the micro,” and “coverage of crises” preëmpts analysis of long-term problems that seem to lack “an immediate sense of excitement or controversy.”
Lippman lamented the tendency of the press to act as “a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.” He believed that the searchlight needed to pause long enough to illuminate issues of vital importance to the public. The Hutchins Commission had similar concerns: “Too much of the regular output of the press consists of a miscellaneous succession of stories and images which have no relation to the typical lives of real people anywhere. Too often the result is meaninglessness, flatness, distortion, and the perpetuation of misunderstanding among widely scattered groups whose only contact is through these media.” Today, in the age of digital journalism, the pressures of velocity and volume are even more powerful, particularly for media organizations which depend on advertising; even subscription-oriented businesses are not immune, since they must attract new readers and optimize their editorial content for search engines and social-media sharing. Democracy may well depend on finding a sustainable business model for a slower, more deliberative form of news. If “objectivity” has lost its usefulness as a shorthand for journalism’s aspirations, and if the meaning of “moral clarity” is unclear, then perhaps quality, rigor, and depth could be worthy ideals.
As for the Hutchens Commission’s second requirement for the press—that it facilitate discussion of “all the important viewpoints and interests in the society”—it’s possible to argue that the Internet has relieved the media of this obligation. The fear that a worthy idea “will never reach the ear of America” is less salient, given the multiplicity of publishing options online. And yet digital platforms are inattentive to fairness, accuracy, and context—exactly the safeguards that thoughtful editing and fact-checking can provide. An op-ed page can still fulfill an essential democratic function. Overseeing such a section today, however, demands a renewed commitment to journalistic rigor, and a new approach to delivering context online, where readers usually encounter pieces on their own, marooned from the other, contrasting viewpoints that might appear in a print newspaper’s opinion section.
In “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” first published in 2001 and revised and updated in 2007 and 2014, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel make the case that the core elements of journalism endure because “they never came from journalists in the first place.” Instead, they emerged from the public’s needs. During the twentieth century, the press came to understand that its highest obligation was to the public it served. Of all the risks that trouble journalism today, the greatest may be that editors, publishers, and other people in charge of media lose sight of this truth.