For weeks our local public radio station had urged us to consider what the American Dream means.
I discovered when I spent part of one summer talking with faculty and students in Amman, Jordan—as part of an exchange–the denizens we met clearly considered the United States a democracy.
They wanted to know how our free press works, and asked what it’s like to live in a democracy.
In Jordan, citizens are ruled by a dual system overseen by a king and a prime minister: a parliamentary monarchy.
Although Jordan hosts elections for some political seats, the prime minister is appointed by the king.
Their press is government-owned, although journalists have a relatively free hand in reporting news.
Their views on the United States are remarkable: most of the folks I spoke with regard North America as resolutely free.
Crime-ridden, but free.
What is a democracy?
Demos, from the Greek, means “the people,” and kratos refers to power.
Democracy, by definition, refers to rule by the people.
We extend “democracy” to the underpinnings of the American press.
A group of intellectuals—led by Robert Maynard Hutchins (the president of the University of Chicago)–discussed the role of the press in a democracy after World War II drew to a close.
The blue ribbon panel (called the Hutchins Commission) published a report in 1947 that “the press has a moral obligation to consider the overall needs of society when making journalistic decisions in order to produce the greatest good.”
The Commission noted that the mass media play a “pivotal” role in forging a democratic society: one in which citizens (and hence, voters) are informed by a press that communicates information that helps everyone make cogent decisions.
The best way for such information to flow is with a “free” press: one that exists without the censorship of governments and special interests.
One media scholar this week told NPR that the new censorship is the flood of information (or misinformation) that drowns our channels.
“Right now, there is too much information,” opined Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina.
“In the 21st century, censorship doesn’t work by withholding information. Censorship now works by flooding with information, by causing distraction, by causing confusion, by creating doubts and just this question mark and shadow so that you really can’t figure out what’s going on,” she added.
“And to me, this is almost like the opposite of whistleblowing. This is whistle-drowning in confusion and distraction.”
If Tufekci is correct—if we are flooded with stories that create doubt rather than certainty–and if we “can’t figure out what’s going on,” then the news media have failed us.
Journalistic decisions appear to capitalize on stories that titillate and shock. Why else would reporters share Twitter blasts from candidates?
While the press were once damned for running sensational stories that would “sell papers,” today’s media shoot for click-bait—stories that get “liked” and passed along to other readers, regardless of their merit.
And that means reporters are failing their obligation to make journalistic decisions in order to produce the greatest good.
We have lost our moorings.
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