LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
BY TOM BIVINS, NEWSLETTER EDITOR
This was the first week of classes at Oregon (late terms), and I held my second meeting with my media ethics class, 155 strong. Today’s talk was about the place of the media, especially the press, in a democracy. I was fresh off a term of teaching media history, so today’s subject was still much alive for me as I regaled them with visions of the founders and their idealized notion of both democracy and the role of a free press as a mainstay in their experiment in popular rule. That’s always an easy first step along an often rocky road. Students quickly grasp the rationale behind the idea of an informed citizenry equipped with the knowledge needed to vote in (or out) their elected representatives, and the vital link between that act and the provider of that knowledge—a free press.
But, among the paeans to a free press from the likes of Jefferson, Madison, and de Tocqueville, were also the paranoid naysayers like John Adams, who gave us the first Alien and Sedition Act resulting in the imprisonment of scores of newspaper editors and regular citizens alike—all of this barely 20 years after the ending of the American Revolution and the noble words of the Declaration of Independence. How soon we forget.
As a class, we moved quickly to the next Alien and Sedition act, the one supported by another paranoid president, Woodrow Wilson. Again, armed by the law and pressured by the Committee for Public Information, newspapers were effectively silenced. Yet, remarkably, scores of news outlets covered, sometimes surreptitiously, the brutal maltreatment of jailed suffragists toward the end of World War I. Their reporting helped raise a national outcry eventually forcing Wilson to concede and finally support the women’s suffrage amendment. The press was only dormant, not dead.
Nonetheless, almost immediately following the war, Walter Lippmann declared both journalism and democracy decaying, if not already dead. His Platonic assessment of the “masses” was that there were too many people and far too much information for them to become knowledgeable and active participants in a democratic system. Better to let the intelligentsia rule the roost and the press pass along their thoughts to the rest of us. I know, Lippmann was far more nuanced than that, but, essentially, he portrayed a citizenry not unlike Plato’s hoi polloi who were viewed as incapable of self-government. Of course, Lippmann’s emphasis on objectivity did lead the press into a new era of responsibility which has lasted until just recently. Yet, the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” of Lippmann’s time has increased a thousand-fold in the world our students now inhabit. What of them?
Our class was visited this morning by a student government member encouraging them to vote while passing out voter registration cards to those who weren’t already registered. It was a very fine presentation during which he revealed that an Oregon State program that provided grants for needful out-of-state students, which had allowed him to come here to school, had been on the legislative chopping block soon after he arrived. He became an activist, and a registered Oregon voter, encouraging others in his situation to do the same. It was on the edge of this new voter turnout that the budget cut was rejected. His parting words, as he held a voter registration card high in the air were, “This is why I am graduating from the University of Oregon this spring.”
At the end of today’s lecture, I became a bit evangelical (which I normally try not to do). I told them that Walter Lippmann would probably be astonished at today’s “blooming, buzzing confusion,” which is far greater than he could have ever imagined. Yet, the real question wasn’t what would Lippmann have done. It was what they were going to do to belie the pessimistic view—from Plato, through Lippmann, to our radically polarized electorate today—that there can be no chance for our experiment in self rule to succeed.
I simply reminded them of Andrew, our pre-class visitor, and his belief in the value of the informed citizen to make a positive change. I couldn’t have asked for a finer opening act.