Freedom for What?


Only a Responsible Press Can Stay Free, Hutchins Commission Finds

(AN ABSTRACT OF THE REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS)

The Problem

The Commission set out to answer the question: Is the freedom of the press in danger? Its answer to the question is: Yes. It concludes that the freedom of the press is in danger for three reasons:

First, the importance of the press to the people has greatly increased with the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. At the same time the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their opinions and ideas through the press.

Second, the few who are able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society.

Third, those who direct the machinery of the press have engaged from time to time in practices which the society condemns and which, if continued, it will inevitably undertake to regulate or control.

When an instrument of prime importance to all the people is available to a small minority of the people only, and when it is employed by that small minority in such a way as not to supply the people with the service they require, the freedom of the minority in the employment of that instrument is in danger.

This danger, in the case of the freedom of the press, is in part the consequence of the economic structure of the press, in part the consequence of the industrial organization of modern society, and in part the result of the failure of the directors of the press to recognize the press needs of a modern nation and to estimate and accept the responsibilities which those needs impose upon them.

The Remedy

We do not believe the problem is one to which a simple solution can be found. Government action might cure the ills of freedom of the press but only at the risk of killing the freedom in the process.

The real remedies lie in a greater assumption of responsibility by the press itself and in the action of an informed people to induce the press to see its responsibilities and to accept them.

The problem is of peculiar importance to this generation. The relation of the modern press to modern society is a new and unfamiliar relation.

The modern press is a new phenomenon. It can facilitate thought or thwart progress. It can debase and vulgarize mankind. It can endanger peace. It can do it accidentally, in a fit of absence of mind. Its scope and power are increasing.

These great new agencies of mass communication can spread lies faster and farther than our forefathers dreamed when they enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

With the means of self-destruction now at their disposal, men must live, if they are to live at all, by self-restraint and mutual understanding. They get their picture of one another through the press. If the press is inflammatory, sensational and irresponsible, it and its freedom will go down in the universal catastrophe. On the other hand, it can help create a new world community by giving men everywhere knowledge of the world and one another, by prompting comprehension and appreciation of the goals of a free society.

Freedom for What?

Modern society requires great agencies of mass communication. Breaking them up is a different thing from breaking up an oil monopoly. Breaking them up may destroy a service the people require.

But these agencies must control themselves or be controlled.

Freedom of the press is essential to political liberty. Freedom of discussion is a necessary condition to a free society.

The press is not free if those who operate it act as though they had the privilege to be deaf to ideas which freedom of speech has brought to public attention.

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