All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1965

Danger to a Free Press

Although isolated journalists, statesmen, and academicians had long toyed with the term “respon­sibility” as well as “freedom” for the mass media, it was not until 1947 when the Commission on Freedom of the Press (headed by Robert Hutchins) brought out its A Free and Responsible Press that the concept gained much of an ideological foothold in the United States. Earlier, it had somehow been assumed that responsibility was automatically built into a libertarian press; that a “free press” in the Western sense was responsible per se to its society.

But the Hutchins group thought differently. Noting what they called a clear danger in growing restriction of communications outlets and general irresponsibil­ity in many areas of the press, the group offered this ominous warning: “If they (the agencies of mass communication) are ir­responsible, not even the First Amendment will protect their freedom from governmental con­trol. The amendment will be amended.”

Since 1947 there has been grow­ing discourse about the respon­sibility of the press and less and less about its freedom to react in­dependently in a democratic so­ciety. Undoubtedly many would-be “definers” of responsible jour­nalism are among us who are ready and willing to turn our press in a new direction: toward “consen­sus” journalism hewing to some predetermined line which the “re­sponsibility” proponents see as progress.

What Is “Social Responsibility”?

At first it would seem rather strange that modern liberals are in the forefront of the “social re­sponsibility” advocates and thus opposed to our traditional plura­listic press philosophy. However, when one thinks of their skepti­cism as to the value of the individ­ual, it is not too difficult to see them projecting this rationale to the press. Just as “liberals” are opposed to “laissez faire” econ­omics, they are also opposed to “laissez faire” journalism. Inevit­ably, if they have their way, the American press can expect a great amount of control in the name of “responsible journalism” and a minimum of individual publisher freedom.

The social responsibility “theory” implies a recognition by the media that they must perform a public service to warrant their existence. Facts must be reported accurately and in a meaningful context. Responsibility, instead of freedom, must be the watchword. Such thinking leads to the advo­cacy of a regulatory system de­signed to keep the press “socially responsible.”

This so-called theory of social responsibility, seriously embraced in “liberal” circles, has a good ring to it and, like “love” and “motherhood,” has an undeniable attraction for many. There is a trend throughout the world in this direction, which implies a suspi­cion of, and dissatisfaction with, the libertarianism of Milton, Locke, and even Jefferson. Implicit in this trend toward “social re­sponsibility” is the argument that some group (obviously a govern­mental one, ultimately) can and must define or decide just what is socially responsible. Also, the implication is clear that publish­ers and journalists acting freely cannot determine what is socially responsible nearly as well as can some “outside” or “impartial” group. If this power elite decides that the press (or portions of it) is not responsible, not even the First Amendment will keep pub­lishers from losing their freedom.

This would appear to many as a suggestion of increased power ac­cumulation at the national level, a further restriction of a plura­listic society.

Government Supervision

Few would deny that the press, in one respect, would be more “re­sponsible” if some type of gov­ernmental supervision came about; indeed, reporters could be kept from nosing about in “criti­cal” areas during “critical” times. The amount of sensational ma­terial could be controlled in the press, or eliminated altogether. Government activities could al­ways be supported and public pol­icy could be pushed regularly. The press could be more “educational” in the sense that less hard news (crime, wrecks, disasters, and the like) would appear, while more news of art exhibits, concerts, speeches by government person­ages, and national progress in general could be emphasized. In short, the press would stress the positive and eliminate, or minim­ize, the negative. Then, with one voice, the press of the nation would be responsible to its so­ciety; and the definition of “re­sponsible” would be functional—defined and carried out by the gov­ernment.

Some persons may object to this line of analysis, saying that to guarantee “social responsibility” of the press does not necessarily imply government control. It is not difficult, however, to project control ultimately to government, since if left to be defined by vari­ous publishers or journalistic groups the term “social respon­sibility” is relative and nebulous. It is obvious that in the tradi­tional context of American liber­tarianism no “solution” that would be widely agreed upon or enforced could ever be reached by nongov­ernment groups or individuals.

Social responsibility proponents insist that government would in­tervene “only when the need is great and the stakes are high.” They assure us that the govern­ment should not be heavy-handed. The question arises, however, as to just when is the need great enough and the stakes high enough for government to inter­vene. And just how much inter­vention by government is enough to be “heavy-handed”?

“Social Responsibility” Implies Pluralistic Communication

The American press has been proceeding on unregulated initia­tive up until now. But its “lib­eral” critics do not think that a pluralistic information system is good enough. Under the diversi­fied system we now have—includ­ing much nonconformist journalism—the citizen does get infor­mation and a wealth of it. Admit­tedly, there are gaps in it, but anyone vaguely familiar with in­formation theory and semantics knows that there will always be gaps, and if different reporters observe and communicate it, there will always be variant versions.

It is certainly not contended here that all information coming to the public from all mass media is reliable, honest, complete, fair, and “socially responsible” (what­ever that means). Nobody really knows just how much of it is—or if any of it is. Since, in a nation such as the United States, there is no ready definition for “social responsibility,” there is really no standard to which our media seek to conform—even though, with­out a doubt, they would all con­ceive of themselves as “socially responsible.”

Their very pluralism—their very diversity—is the base of their nebulous idea that in our society they are responsible. Re­sponsibility to our society implies a continuance of this very pluralis­tic communication, with all of its virtues and evils, and a constant guard against any encroachments by any group on any level to “de­fine” what is “responsible,” there­by further aligning the press to its definition.

This “press pluralism” concept seems much sounder and certain­ly more meaningful, than “social responsibility.” All press systems can claim to be responsible to their societies, but the idea of a pluralistic media system injecting a variety of opinions and ideas in­to the social fabric is one which only the libertarian system can reasonably claim. The U.S. press should fight all attempts to cast all of its units in the same mold; the right of, or at least the possibility for, some press units to deviate from others must persist. If that be irresponsibility, we had better be content to continue living with it.

  • Dr. Merrill, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Missouri, offers, among others, a graduate course on "Basic Issues in the News."