Twilight of Press Freedom: The Rise of People's Journalism

Article excerpt

Twilight of Press Freedom: The Rise of People's Journalism. John C. Merrill, Peter J. Gade, and Frederick R. Blevens. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. 219 pp. $49.95 hbk. $24.50 pbk.

The three journalism professors who collaborated on Twilight of Press Freedom insist they did not set out to write "a polemic either for or against public (a.k.a. civic) journalism and other communitarian changes that are taking place." Nevertheless, one cannot escape the impression that the authors, for whatever reason, struggled mightily to avoid the blunt value judgment to which I think they quite intentionally point: communitarianism and its manifestation in public journalism are very dangerous, and although it is probably too late already, we had better think long and hard before yielding to the communitarian impulse of public journalism. To yield is to surrender the autonomous voice of the press to a new form of authoritarianism.

The exposition unfolds roughly as follows: Communitarian philosophy, with an emphasis on order, security, and community, is displacing libertarian Enlightenment philosophy and its emphasis on individualism and autonomy. Wellmeaning, public journalists are furthering a communitarian agenda that strips power from the institutional press to empower the public. The result may well be a different kind of journalism, but not necessarily better journalism. Rather, public journalism will help establish a "neo-authoritarianism" rooted in the "democratized authority" of the people that will elevate community consensus over individuals using their own rational thought to reach conclusions on matters of principle and policy. Journalistic values such as objectivity and detachment will be discarded in favor of community involvement, engagement, and activation. The news media will feel compelled to act primarily in the interests of the public on an agenda determined not by independent journalistic judgment but by the people themselves with facilitation by the media. The press is likely to retain its legal freedom under the First Amendment, but that freedom will not mean much in a "neoauthoritarian" environment.

Readers can judge for themselves how accurately and dispassionately the authors characterize public journalism. …

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