Why A Democracy Depends on a Free Press

A brief overview on why a free press is vital to a democracy

I recently started reading Al Gore's latest bookThe Assault on Reason, and have found his analysis on the role of today's media elites to be particularly insightful. Gore writes:

If the forum is not fully open, then those who control access become gatekeepers. If they charge money in return for access, then those with more money have a greater ability to participate. Good ideas in the minds of men and women who cannot afford the price of admission to the public forum are then no longer available for consideration. When their opinions are blocked, the meritocracy of ideas that has always been the beating heart of democratic theory begins to suffer damage. The conversation of democracy then comes untethered from the rule of reason and can be manipulated.
While perusing this passage, I was reminded of a short educational film made in the 1940s which outlines the continuum between democracy and despotism.

Despotism (1946)
The full video can be found here.

Just as the film points out, there are many potential obstacles to a free press and not all are governmental. It is a basic principle that people and organizations will usually avoid acting against their own interests, and as the major media companies continue to consolidate their businesses and diversify their investments, the information accessible from the mainstream press becomes more and more vulnerable to economic interests. This trend also reduces the number of different views that the public is exposed to, and threatens the marketplace of ideas.

In many ways, the internet is the last information frontier. The barriers to entry are insignificant compared to other mediums, and even though there are many large business entities on the internet, the lone individual still has a fighting chance to have his views heard by a huge audience. One independent politico using the moniker Parkridge47 posted a video about the 2008 election which has been seen by over 3 million people and debated far and wide across both the alternative and mainstream media.

Of course, given the decentralized power of the internet and its inability to be controlled, there have been several attempts to transform the Web. One of the main foundations of the internet is what's called net neutrality. Net neutrality dictates that every piece of information running through your ISP is handled the same way. It doesn't matter if you're downloading a video from CNN or Indymedia, it must still be processed with the same priority. If net neutrality were to be eliminated then large companies would be able to secure contracts for fast reliable streaming while other sources of information could potentially become so bogged down that they become nearly impossible to download.

The only means to ensure the free flow of information is if all forms of media are protected equally, and I think that both the passage and the film above illustrate just how vital this principle is towards maintaining and advancing the principle of liberty and the freedoms we associate with it.

About the author

    Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.

     

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