April 20, 2004

Free Press: The Big Idea

Underneath the clutter of readership debates, circulation woes and lack of diversity, behind the baggage of tradition and monopoly, deep in the closet, past the rotting skeletons of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, there, in the corner, filmy with the dust of disregard is the Big Idea - a free press is necessary for a free people.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel economist, reminds us, in an essay for the World Association of Newspapers in advance of World Press Freedom Day (May 3), of four reasons why a free press is so important. They are:

Quality of life: "We have reason enough to want to communicate with each other and to understand better the world in which we live. … the suppression of people's ability to communicate with each other (has) the effect of directly reducing the quality of human life, even if the authoritarian country that imposes such suppression happens to be very rich in terms of gross national product (GNP)."

Giving voice to the voiceless: "The rulers of a country are often insulated, in their own lives, from the misery of common people. They can live through a national calamity, such as a famine or some other disaster, without sharing the fate of the victims. If, however, they have to face public criticism in the media and to confront elections with an uncensored press, the rulers have to pay a price too, and this gives them a strong incentive to take timely action to avert such crises. It is, thus, not at all astonishing that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press."

Transfer of knowledge: The informational function of the press relates not only to … keeping people generally informed on what is going on where. … investigative journalism can unearth information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or even unknown."

Formation of civic values: "Informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument. The freedom of the press is crucial to this process. Indeed, value formation is an interactive process, and the press has a major role in making these interactions possible. New standards and priorities (such as the norm of smaller families with less frequent child bearing, or greater recognition of the need for gender equity) emerge through public discourse, and it is public discussion, again, that spreads the new norms across different regions." (All emphasis added)

Sen's reasoning may seem self-evident to American journalists, who enjoy professional lives unfettered by interference from government and free from fear of death at the hands of those who disagree with what they write.

Despite successes by the current administration to suppress public information, the First Amendment and a host of shield laws continue to afford American journalists freedoms unheard of in so many other countries. This is why American journalists have an obligation to produce the highest quality journalism possible - as an example and an argument to journalists everywhere, and to those governments who would stifle them, that a free press is a fundamental component of a free society.

A lot of small thinking goes on in newspapers, much of devoted to the minutiae of the daily process. Let's not lose the Big Idea in the fog of petty concerns.

(Thanks to Tom Mangan for the tip.)

 World Association of Newspapers: Amartya Sen What’s the Point of Press Freedom?

Posted by Tim Porter at April 20, 2004 09:26 AM