Who Should Control the Press?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   June/July 2005

Who Should Control the Press?   

The Press
Edited by Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
450 pages; $65

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


When it comes to controlling the press, Americans for 200 years have resoundingly preferred the marketplace to the government. This important book raises the unsettling questions: What happens if the open market no longer does the job? Is it time to turn to government?

Geneva Overholser, a respected journalist, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a respected scholar, don't frame the questions this bluntly, and I don't suggest at all that they favor government action. But, cumulatively, this collection of two dozen essays by leading thinkers winds up indicting today's journalism and at least tiptoeing toward the case for outside reform.

"At the center of this book is a question," Overholser and Jamieson write. "What should a democracy expect of the press?"

Their book addresses this matter in the kind of thoughtful, intellectual, historical context often lacking in such discussions. Contributors such as Michael Schudson, Daniel C. Hallin, Robert Giles, Theodore L. Glasser and Barbie Zelizer analyze the evolving roles and structures of journalism and its complex connections to government and society.

At a hefty $65, the book will probably turn up on more library shelves than bedside tables, but it provides an efficient overview of journalism history, press-government-military relations and First Amendment context.

One key subtheme concerns whether the First Amendment mainly protects personal speech or whether it exists to "safeguard popular sovereignty, not individual self-expression," thus promoting full participation in the civic dialogue.

More than one essay stresses the latter interpretation, that the press is singled out for constitutional protection in exchange for its vital role in sustaining democratic life.

As James Curran writes, the media are counted on not just to inform, but also to assist in accountability, conflict resolution, deliberation and the represention of diverse views. But Curran and others conclude that today's press isn't meeting the standard. Their reasoning rings with the familiar themes of profit hunger, conglomerate meddling, competitive pressures and the overall entertainizing of everything.

Seen in historical context, they argue, these forces challenge the enduring article of faith that truth can emerge and public service thrive in the hurly-burly of an unregulated marketplace.

"The marketplace of ideas is endangered," argue Robert Schmuhl and Robert G. Picard, becoming "dominated by the commercial marketplace for entertainment." The ensuing "rampant commercialism" discourages the press from the "costly and less profitable content that serves the marketplace of ideas."

Other pressures come from the rise of the Internet ("more information, less news") and "an American public growing increasingly hostile to the supplier of a dangerous world's discomfiting news." All this hurts watchdog journalism, attention to world affairs, and minority voices and needs.

To many critics, Esther Thorson reports, these developments are "rapidly degrading newspapers, network, and local and cable television news to a point that they will be unable to perform any of the classic functions of the press in a democracy."

What should we do?

In their essay, W. Lance Bennett and William Serrin recommend broadening beats and sources, and reinvigorating the watchdog role. Then they add this suggestion:

"Explore new institutional means--including government support and regulation, public commissions and new business models for news--to create better accountability relations between journalists and other democratic stakeholders."

They aren't alone in imagining new roles for government. In another essay, Yale law professor Owen Fiss is quoted as asking, "Might the state have a role in furthering the democratic mission of the press?" The essay's authors then quote the U.S. Supreme Court itself, which once ruled, "It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."

In fact, Timothy E. Cook contends in his piece that government has long influenced and subsidized the media in many ways, from providing lower postal rates to underwriting new technology to offering breaks such as exemption from sales taxes. It follows, he says, that "if we as citizens do not find that the news fits our needs or those of democracy, there are alternative ways to reform and improve the news beyond appealing to journalists and journalism."

Schmuhl and Picard, too, call for "public policies..to simultaneously control concentration, promote new competition and counter commercialism."

Yet the essays offer little debate over whether the government could be relied on to truly help. Would they entrust press policy to the Federal Communications Commission or the lawmakers who wrote the Patriot Act or the increasingly hostile federal judiciary? Do they sense serious movement from today's political leaders toward championing open expression and aggressive newsgathering?

At this point, it seems hard to believe that government has any more moral capital than the marketplace to further good journalistic policy. Perhaps the market should be allowed to limp forward in hopes of reform. But if you are convinced that journalistic ideals are imperiled, and you doubt both the market and the government, then you definitely should start searching for the great, hitherto-unknown third way to journalistic salvation.



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