American Academy of Arts & Sciences Induction Symposium

A Free Press for a Global Society
October 10, 2010

The need to build a system of free press that is suitable (from both U.S. and global perspectives) to the conditions of globalization is a subject of intrinsic importance. It is also an example of how the extraordinary forces of globalization are reshaping intellectual fields. (Universities, in my view, should be thinking much more systematically about this challenge, but that’s a larger subject for another day.) Today, the system of free press that prevails in the United States blends constitutional law, public policy, the specific conditions of markets–with respect to daily newspapers, in particular–and the development of journalism as a profession. All these elements emerged in the twentieth century. Like universities, the press is one of the central institutions of a democratic society. At its best, the press serves the public good by disseminating information and analysis and by functioning as a public forum for discussing issues of importance to society. Perhaps its greatest contribution lies in its capacity for calibration: that is, the ability to judge what is important and why.

In the twentieth century, the nation became less an assemblage of states and regions and more a national entity. The structure and institutions of the society shifted accordingly. The growth of the economy; the rise of issues with national scope, such as civil rights; and the development of new communications technology—broadcasting, in particular—that enhanced national discussion: all contributed to the need for a free press that could function on a national level and was appropriate for a rising, robust, and dynamic national society. To that end, a complex ecology of First Amendment public policy and journalism evolved. The Supreme Court initiated a series of landmark decisions that ultimately provided a unified national approach. Those decisions pushed the boundaries of free speech and press beyond what any nation in history had done before. They also articulated the important public role performed by the press, locating the rationales for extraordinary protection in the political and social interests of democracy, reason, and tolerance.

Meanwhile, public policy intervened in the new broadcast media. With the Supreme Court’s blessing, the federal government organized a blend of private ownership and public-interest regulation to expand the range of voices. It also launched a public broadcasting system with guarantees of editorial autonomy. Finally, the print media used its revenues, especially the monopolistic profits of daily newspapers, to deepen and expand its expertise to cover the news. Journalism began to look more and more like a profession, with standards of behavior that transcended interest, profit, and partisanship. Private enterprise, market conditions, state policy, and constitutional cases—none of which could have given rise to a free press all on its own—combined to create the best press in the world.

In our current century, the conditions undergirding the system have shifted. Free markets have gone global, driving changes of enormous significance throughout the world. Some changes are good, such as improved standards of living and better health for hundreds of millions of people; others are bad, like climate change, or problematic, like the fragility of the international economy, the tensions of multiculturalism, or conflicts between modernity and other ways of life. Ours is a world driven by business and finance, aided as always by new communication technologies; in this case, the Internet and satellite broadcasting are especially influential. It is a world that moves with extraordinary rapidity and that often resists the sunshine provided by a responsible press. It is a world in desperate need of the kind of information that only institutions of journalism can provide. We therefore need a system of free press suitable to this new world.

I fear that the United States does not grasp the full degree to which we are becoming integrated and interdependent with other countries. Half of the revenues of s&p 500 companies are generated outside the United States. Half the goods consumed by wealthy nations are manufactured in emerging economies. Half of U.S. government debt is in foreign hands. What happens to this world? How does it evolve? What choices do we need to make to create the best of all possible worlds? At the least, we should think carefully and systematically about what kind of press system will provide us and others with the journalism we need to address these questions. As form is sometimes said to follow function, so free press follows issues—and the issues are increasingly global.

Three major areas require particular attention. First, the balance of interests that produced our First Amendment jurisprudence is starting to shift. For example, when The Washington Post obtains classified documents or information, we can count on its journalists and editors to feel the force of patriotic considerations in deciding what to publish; this is not the case for those behind WikiLeaks. Today, when an unknown pastor in Florida threatens to burn the Koran, the hostile audience that will be aroused, and the violence that might ensue, is not within the same control, or on the same scale, as the threatening mob in Illinois that prompted one of the Supreme Court cases of the last century. For these reasons, the Pentagon Papers case may not look quite the same today. One thing is for sure: the Secretary of Defense’s call list will get very long. My point is not that the case law should change, but rather that the resolution we have reached will to some extent need to be reconsidered.

Second, to design this system of free press on a global scale, our basic perspectives and assumptions must change. To the extent that we need information about what is happening in the world, the working distinction in our minds between domestic and foreign press must recede; indeed, much of what we need to know will come from the foreign or international press. This reality has implications for policy. For example, access for members of the press is crucial. Restrictions on foreign journalists that exist today in virtually all countries, including the United States, and are justified on grounds of foreign policy or sovereignty become problematic. Visa and travel restrictions on international journalists, or decisions by cable companies not to carry certain international media, will need rethinking.

Censorship on a global scale is a third matter of enormous concern. Nations throughout the world have very different ideas about the role of the press and the scope of freedom it should be afforded. In a world of global communication, the reality increasingly is that censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere. In the United States during the twentieth century, state laws restricting speech and press eventually gave way to a set of national norms, with New York Times Co. v. Sullivanbeing the primary case in point. A similar transformation must unfold globally.

A speech or essay in the United States can get its speaker or writer in trouble in Italy, Turkey, China, or Britain. Again, our fundamental perspective must change. This is no longer a matter of nobly securing human rights for the rest of the world; rather, it is a practical matter of securing the basic flow of information and ideas required to accompany and complement the free flow of goods and services.

We seem hardly prepared for this new world, and our shortcomings will not be corrected by advances in technology alone. Those of us who believe in the virtues of a very open and free press system must develop new rationales and arguments to persuade those who do not share our intuition. For example, we might emphasize the relationship between openness and sustainable and stable economic growth, the latter being something nearly all societies now seem to want. We will have to work toward stronger international legal norms. Texts such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, World Trade Organization guidelines, and other regional treaties provide a place to begin.

Finally, besides problems of access and censorship, we must focus on the capacity of the press to cover the dynamic, fast-moving, and somewhat secretive forces of globalization. It is unfortunate that at the moment we need more and better international press coverage; the current financial crisis has caused budgets for foreign bureaus and correspondents to contract. Even without this troubling state of affairs, however, we would benefit from a more focused discussion of the role public policy might play in bringing more independent and objective journalism to the world—and more of it back home to us.

The American population must be better educated than we are about global issues. Other nations, certainly, are engaged in international events. New public service broadcast systems are reaching out to the world from France, Russia, the Middle East, and China, joining the traditional institutions such as the BBC World News and BBC World Service. I believe the world would benefit from more American-style journalism and I have suggested the formation of an American World Service modeled on the BBC.

At present, the United States has a dual system of publicly supported broadcasting. On the one hand, there is an editorially independent press with a domestic mission, namely NPR and PBS. On the other is a government press with an international mission, which includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and several other news organizations. In yet another example of how the world has changed while our policies lag behind, a 1947 statute bars these government propaganda outlets in the international arena from rebroadcasting back into the United States. Whatever one thinks of these media, they will always be viewed as the voice of the American government. The best of free and independent American journalism needs to join these and other institutions, many of them private, in the new global public forum. A good method to achieve such integration, for example, would be to augment the funding and mission of NPR.

For Americans who are skeptical about public support for the press, I should reiterate that neither theory nor experience suggests that a free market alone can create the conditions necessary for an independent, global press to arise. Certainly, editorial autonomy is essential to any free press. There are ways to establish that reality in practice and in First Amendment law. By comparison, at universities, where we care as much about academic freedom as journalists do about editorial freedom, we have long maintained our autonomy in spite of significant state and federal funding. Journalism, I believe, can do the same. The world is undergoing momentous changes through the forces of globalization. We need a free press that is suitable to this new world. To achieve that goal, we must change our basic concepts and develop our laws and policies to deal with the serious issues of access, censorship, and the capacity of the press to provide the information we need. Only then can the press do its part to help shape a world that will work for ends we believe in.

Question: Could you comment on online journalism and whether you believe that a robust, open, and balanced forum could be Internet-based?

Lee Bollinger: This is a very large subject. The Internet is bringing enormous amounts of new information, opinion, and analysis to discussion of global and national issues. I think this development is a huge plus. However, the Internet will not replace the institutions that are devoted to the spread of information and analysis on an independent and objective basis. That is the domain of journalism. While it is typically thought that the citizen journalist is one of the great new advances of the Internet age—a view that I share—I do not think it replaces the need for large organizations that have a unique range of capacities to go out and report on the world. I think the other point to be made, which I offer up tentatively, is that the type of “journalism” that is not of the traditional media tends to contain more opinion than objective reporting. Journalism is a profession, just as scholarship is a profession, meaning that professional journalists are committed to certain norms in the way they pursue information and truth. By the same token, we might ask, could the courses, discussions, or sources of information that we have access to at universities be replaced by Internet alternatives? Taking a basic economics course online does not connect a student to an institution devoted to the development of knowledge about economics or laws. I think that is a huge loss.

Question: Previously, newspapers could hire robust editorial staffs because they had the revenue. How will we replace that capacity in the Internet age? How will we accrete enough mass, gravitas, and editorial staffing to supplement at least the blogosphere?

Lee Bollinger: The answer I’m giving in op-eds, essays, speeches, and my book is: through public funding. We have a mix that balances private institutions, publicly funded media,and hybrids that incorporate some public policy. I would shift the nature of that balance to devote more public funding to journalism, in part to make up for the economic losses we are experiencing. Where we are is completely unsatisfactory. From informal conversations with members of the American press, I understand that, apart from the financial press employed by Bloomberg News, we may have only two dozen full-time foreign correspondents covering all of China. A handful has been there long enough to have acquired a deep knowledge of the society. Perhaps five or six journalists have a sense of how China evolved, what is going on in China, what the leadership is really like, and China’s views on topics we care about, such as openness. Do they believe that the emergence of a free press is inevitable, or do they believe that a closed society is consistent with sustained economic wealth? Those kinds of questions are immensely significant to the United States and the world. It seems that we would want to have many more journalists trying to understand them, as well as more university faculty and student investigators. We in the universities have not adjusted our fields and our array of expertise to really try to understand what is going on in the world, China being a particular example. Again, I would use public funding.

I have followed the press for many decades, and I have asked editors of major daily newspapers to give me a sense of the history of the press in this country. Leading newspapers started making substantial profits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they came to dominate the market. That’s when they hired economists, lawyers, scientists, and other experts to cover subjects like the court or the economy. Today, newspapers are in the process of losing a good deal of that range of expertise. Allowing it to unfold without a careful public policy review is a mistake.

Question: My impression is that the First Amendment was originally intended to provide freedom of speech to the press so that it could criticize the government. But in the course of the last two hundred years, it seems we have morphed that right into the freedom for individuals to express themselves in a variety of ways. The Internet offers a megaphone for a good deal of objectionable speech. Is it your sense that the intent has morphed, or do you believe that freedom of speech originally was meant to apply not only to the press but also to individuals?

Lee Bollinger: I think the provision was intended to apply to individuals, but we know stunningly little about how the First Amendment was interpreted by the people who drafted it. There has been very little effort to unravel that mystery. The first Supreme Court case to interpret the First Amendment was in 1919. Thus, freedom of speech and press as we know them today are an invention of the twentieth century.

And as I point out in many places, it was not an auspicious beginning. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous court in three early decisions, upholding convictions against people who had protested for various reasons prior to World War I. One of the individuals whose conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court was presidential candidate Eugene Debs. He gave a speech in Ohio in which he praised people who resisted the draft. That was held to be a crime sufficient for a presidential candidate to go to jail. While he was there, he received a million votes for president in the 1920 election.

Then the law changed. Holmes oversaw a ruling on the First Amendment and religion that resulted in strong protections for individuals. During the McCarthy period, however, as people were jailed for speaking about overthrowing the government, the court fell victim to the traditional notion that in a new period, threatened by international conspiracy, the government must be allowed to take action.

In the 1960s, everything changed again, with cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Brandenburg v. Ohio. Our current jurisprudence really derives from that period, rooted in some fine decisions of the 1920s and 1930s. None of those cases is based on an understanding of what the framers wanted, largely because, as I mentioned, there has been virtually no historical analysis of what the framers’ exact vision might have been. Yet we should not readily accept the idea that the framers had a vision that we have altered over time.

Why do we take freedom of speech so far in the United States? Why were neo-Nazi speakers allowed to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977? Four thousand Holocaust survivors lived in that community, and half the population was Jewish. We take free speech further than any other society in the world, and that includes neighbors such as Canada and Britain. We are now in a position where our exercise of free speech rights are not just domestic issues; they are published globally, and an American can end up being prosecuted, as has happened, in Italy or Turkey.

This is the beginning of a whole new era, a whole new century. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was pivotal in recognizing that Alabama could not have a rule that allowed people to sue freely for libel; it undermined The New York Times’ ability to publish a national edition because it could face libel cases in the least protective areas of the country. Now, we are facing that problem on a global scale. For most of my professional career, I have struggled with the question of why we have such extreme protection. I think it is rooted in a strategy to test our limits of tolerance in the area of speech as a lesson or symbol of the need to bring tolerance to every area of social interaction. I think we bend over backward to be tolerant because that’s the kind of character we want to have. But other societies have reached very different judgments about what individuals can say publicly. Germany, for example, does not allow neo-Nazi speech; we can understand why certain societies might establish different rules. We are now in a global discussion about defining the parameters of free speech on an international scale.

Question: Liberty is inseparable from responsibility. How can we institutionalize responsibility and protect the citizen from slander and libel?

Lee Bollinger: I think we look to universities. Quality journalism is a major responsibility of universities and journalism schools. Under Nick Lemann, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia is working closely on these projects and others, strengthening the journalism school as a place for professional development. I also think the participation of people who exhibit the best qualities of a professional journalist, to serve as a kind of model or example for how we should speak and behave, is extremely important.

We should value enormously the quality of the free press that has been achieved in this country; it’s an astonishing institution. Nurturing it, helping reshape it through this difficult period, and building a free press on a global scale are great goals. In these efforts, we can work toward a culture in which debate is conducted on the highest possible levels.