Spring 2005

Freedom and Liberty: Tough Stories to Tell

‘When freedom and orthodoxy collide, it’s interesting to note how the press behaves.’

Adapted from a presentation by William F. Woo

In December 2004, William F. Woo, a 1967 Nieman Fellow and former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who teaches journalism at Stanford University, gave a talk entitled “Democracy, Freedom and Media,” at the Conference on Information Society, Media and Democracy that was organized by the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, Switzerland and Stanford University’s department of communication. This article is adapted from his presentation.

Though many Americans use democracy and freedom interchangeably, the two, of course, are different. Democracy is a political system; freedom or liberty are qualities or conditions—those of being unconstrained in thought, expression, choice or action save when the laws are contravened.

In the United States, democracy is the means by which the ends of freedom and liberty are to be achieved. Yet a functioning democracy is not necessarily a place of freedom or liberty, as African slaves in 18th and 19th century America would have attested.

It is not always easy to be certain what the founders of the country had in mind in terms of democracy and freedom, as Presidents who want strict constructionist judges have learned. Nonetheless, in the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the word democracy never appears. The words freedom and liberty do and not as a result of any imprecision of terms.

The founders were clear that freedom or liberty was their objective. A democracy was the means to it. Yet the media today are far less concerned with liberty than with democracy. How can that be explained? One reason, I believe, has to do with the easily quantifiable nature of democracy. Voter registration, voter turnout, the percentage of eligible as set against participating voters—such statistics make it simple for journalists to report on and draw conclusions about “democracy in action.”

For journalists, democracy is synonymous with the electoral process. With its start- and end-dates; its periodic filings of campaign financial data; its primaries, caucuses and conventions; its story lines of candidates and campaigns; its explosive growth in polling; its head-to-head confrontation at debates, and surely not least, its squadrons of academics and pundits ready to interpret every development, the process is easy for the press to comprehend. But a focus on the drama of the unfolding democratic process reveals little about what it might mean for freedom in America.

The emphasis in recent years by news organizations on encouraging civic participation also yields quantifiable results. I have in mind such activities as campaigns to increase voter registration or the creation of local forums to address community issues. These contributions are rarely controversial, except among some journalists who question the mingling news and community involvement. They fall into the realm of “good works,” on the order of contributions to charities such as the 100 neediest cases at holiday time. Journalists and news organizations can feel good doing such things, and they can expect praise. For the media, democracy goes with motherhood and apple pie.

A democracy is organized by elections, but it functions through government, and there everyday routines do not lend themselves to easy narratives. At the federal level, consistent coverage of many executive agencies is virtually nonexistent. When an agency makes the news, it usually is the result of some dramatic development, such as the FDA’s finding that much of the flu vaccine supply was unsafe. Even Congressional legislation about important issues—health care, for example—is covered in fits and starts.

For several years now, the American Journalism Review has been documenting the startling decline in the coverage of state government, where much that affects the American public is decided. City councils essentially are zoning and land-use bodies, but who would understand that from the coverage of them? When I was a young city hall reporter at the Kansas City Times in the late 1950’s, every action taken at a council meeting was published in the paper. Every vacated alley had a paragraph or two, every application for a zoning variance was mentioned. It might have been numbing to read—and difficult in agate type—but it was an account of representative government that is unseen today.

In 1996, the novelist Salman Rushdie spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He concluded his remarks by saying: “A free society is not a calm and eventless place, that is the kind of static, dead society dictators try to create. Free societies are dynamic, noisy, turbulent and full of radical disagreements. … it is the disrespect of journalists for power, for orthodoxies, for party lines, for ideologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity, perhaps even for editors, that I would like to celebrate this morning, and that I urge you all, in the name of freedom, to preserve.”

The editors applauded, but their papers were not soon filled with celebrations of the noisy and turbulent aspects of American society. Rushdie’s pleas for disrespect went unheeded. Editors were too busy “reconnecting” with their communities to risk being disrespectful of anyone.

The mainstream media are an orthodox institution. Some might be a few degrees right or left of center, but none that seeks a large audience positions itself at the radical extremes. What distinguishes the Fox Network is not the novelty of its opinions but the slash-and-burn way in which it expresses them. None of this should surprise us. When freedom and orthodoxy collide, it’s interesting to note how the press behaves. John Lofton, in his 1980 book, “The Press as Guardian of the First Amendment,” examined the performance of the press in key moments when the First Amendment guarantees of free expression were tested from the sedition laws of the late 18th century until the late 20th century. Lofton wrote that “… except when their own freedom was discernibly at stake, established general circulation newspapers have tended to go along with efforts to suppress deviations from the prevailing political and social orthodoxies of their time and place rather than to support the right to dissent.”

Though the press has been vigilant to stand up for the First Amendment in times such as the Pentagon Papers case or when reporters are threatened with jail, in other instances, the press, as an institution, usually has been hostile to citizens whose free expression has been at stake. When the abolitionist movement emerged before the Civil War, mainstream papers opposed it. Anarchists, Wobblies, Socialists, Communists— all were the target of press opposition to their rights of expression.

Even now, when the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party seeks to assemble or express its views, the utmost that can be hoped for from the media are grudging acknowledgements that the First Amendment regrettably might apply to them. Never are such occasions seen as necessary for the “noisy, turbulent, radical disagreement” essential to Rushdie’s vision of a free society.

In today’s bottom-line media economy, with ownership concentrated in a few corporations, the key to success is advertising, which in newspapers accounts for about 85 percent of revenues. Advertising is directed at target audiences, and if those audiences are put off by the news content, they are harder for advertisers to capture. This helps to account for the insipid programming on network television and increasingly bland and uncontroversial presentations in the print media.

All of this, of course, increases the incentive to concentrate on the ordinary or the orthodox. All of this decreases the incentive to tell the stories of people on the margins of society and to feature their struggles for freedom or liberty.

Telling Stories About Freedom

Earlier I suggested that the fact that one reason the media are focused on democracy is that it is quantifiable. In a way, freedom is quantifiable, too. I have in mind the data available through such worldwide agencies as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Each year, they document the state of freedom and liberty in the United States. Typically the reports focus on issues like questionable detentions, death penalties, prison conditions, discrimination in public housing, restraints on reproductive choice, treatment of juveniles, and so forth.

To be sure, these reports receive media attention. But when these issues are covered otherwise, they are almost never placed in the context of freedom and liberty. Moreover, the statistics gathered by international watchdog agencies are directed at government actions and policies. But as the founders recognized, it is not only government that restricts liberties. Such curtailments occur every day in ways that are undocumented and unquantified—and unrecognized except by those who suffer at the hands of the powerful or majority.

If the commitment to freedom and liberty were there, nothing would prevent news organizations from showing how these bedrock qualities fare in the lives of America’s communities. Nothing would prevent them from disrespecting orthodoxy when it intrudes upon people’s freedom.

To do so, however, requires a clear understanding of what constitutes freedom and liberty and how they are related to democracy, but are dissimilar from it. To do so would also require an understanding that a preoccupation with orthodoxy and what is safe to write and talk about is antithetical to the freedom democracy is intended to serve. But for the press, democracy is a safe, easy story; freedom and liberty are not.


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