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communist countries, but one has to weigh the alternatives. Are government and party subsidies less imprisoning? If journalists are so fearful of contamination by advertiser pressure, they can build internal walls between news and business functions, similar to those American newspapers erected earlier in this century.If they are fearful of political contamination of the information-gathering process, they can build another wall separating the newsroom from the editorial department—another important concept in modern American journalism.The problem in many new democracies is that journalists who once had to toe the single-party line equate independence with opposition. Because they speak out against the government,
they say they are independent. But haven’t they just traded one affiliation for another? There is little room for unvarnished truth in a partisan press.Is objectivity a luxury in societies that have only recently begun to enjoy the freedom to voice their opinions? Listen to a Lithuanian newspaper editor shortly after his country gained its independence: “I want my readers to know what their heads are for.” His readers were used to being told not only what to think about, but what to think. Democracy requires the public to make choices and decisions. This editor wanted to prepare citizens for that responsibility with articles that inform but do not pass judgment. His circulation increased.Though nearly 60 percent of the world’s nations today are declared democracies—a monumental change from a mere decade ago—most of them have nevertheless instituted press laws that prohibit reporting on a whole array of subjects ranging from the internal activity and operations of government to the private lives of leaders. Some of these are well-intentioned efforts to “preserve public stability.” But all of them, ALL of them, undermine self-governance.The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses? In the United States, it is done in a variety of ways. One, for example, is the use of “ombudsmen.” In this case, news organizations employ an in-house critic to hear public complaints and either publish or broadcast their judgments. Another is the creation of citizens’ councils which sit to hear public complaints about the press and then issue verdicts, which, although not carrying the force of law, are aired widely.Last, and most effective, is libel law. In the United States, a citizen can win a substantial monetary award from a news organization if libel is proven in a court of law. It is much harder for a public official or celebrity than an ordinary citizen to win a libel case against the press, because the courts have ruled that notoriety comes with being in the limelight. In most cases, the
complaining notable must prove “malice aforethought.”There is nothing in the American constitution that says the press must be responsible and accountable. Those requirements were reserved for government. In a free-market democracy, the people—that is the voters and the buying public—ultimately decide as to how their press should act. If at least a semblance of truth-in-the-public-service does not remain a motivating force for the mass media of the future, neither free journalism nor true democracy has much hope, in my opinion.The nature and use of new technology is not the essential problem. If true journalists are worried about their future in an age when everyone with a computer can call themselves journalists, then the profession has to demonstrate that it is special, that it offers something of real value and can prove it to the public. There is still a need today—perhaps more than ever—for identifying sense amidst the nonsense, for sifting the important from the trivial, and, yes, for telling the truth. Those goals still constitute the best mandate for a free press in a democracy.George Washington’s admonition, uttered at the Constitutional Convention, still stands: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”