- Ira Gershwin, 1938
The 1947 report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press stands as a landmark in the history of press criticism. Written by Robert Maynard Hutchins and a dozen other preeminent intellectuals of the day, A Free and Responsible Press offers an astute, literate, and impassioned indictment of the nation's mass media. The 133-page report contends that the press is free for the purpose of serving democracy; a press that shirks its democratic duties will lose its freedom. The report calls on the press to improve itself in the name of morality, democracy, and self-preservation.
The press proved unreceptive--in fact, indignant--producing yelps of umbrage that nearly drowned out the Commission's recommendations. Over the half-century since, the report has appreciably influenced academic thinking about journalism, but not journalism itself. A flawed success as an analysis, A Free and Responsible Press has proved, as a call to action, a magnificent failure.
Consequently, the experience of the Hutchins Commission makes for a revealing, sometimes poignant case study of a reformist flop. What went wrong? Did the Commission members misreckon the press's openness to criticism? The Commission's story also opens a window on journalism and democracy, and on how both have evolved over 50 years. "Neither communication nor democracy is a transcendent concept," James Carey has written; "they do not exist outside history." If 13 intellectuals convened to analyze today's press (assuming they found the subject worthy of their attention), to what extent would their conclusions echo those of the Hutchins group? How would the intellectuals regard the journalists and vice versa? How would both groups define their roles in public life?1
More broadly, the saga of the Hutchins Commission clarifies fundamental aspects of press freedom and democracy. A free press, it is almost universally accepted, is a prerequisite of democratic self-government. Can regulatory efforts refine the press's contribution to the public good? Or will they merely enfeeble the press vis-a-vis the state? Why must we prove the existence of a "clear and present danger" to ban a harmful utterance, but not to ban a harmful medicine?
The Hutchins report addresses such issues eloquently but at times peremptorily. More intriguing in many respects are the Commission's unpublished deliberations. These Platonic dialogues show great minds grappling with a fundamental paradox. It is encapsulated by the John Adams quotation that the Commission chose as the epigram to its report: "If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind, philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it."2