With Malice toward All? The Media and Public Confidence in Democratic Institutions

By Patricia Moy; Michael Pfau | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
The Print Media's Contribution

The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson ( Letter to John Novell, 1807)

The press is no substitute for institutions. It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.

Political philosopher Walter Lippmann ( 1922, p. 229)

Discussion of the pivotal role of newspapers in democratic societies can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville ( 1848/ 1969), who believed that newspapers not only guaranteed liberty, but also maintained civilization. Newspapers, he wrote, were capable of bringing people together by giving "publicity to the feeling or idea that had occurred to them all simultaneously but separately" (p. 518).

The pedestal upon which newspapers rested was a sturdy one, at least until Walter Lippmann, in his classic book Public Opinion ( 1922), questioned whether the press could indeed disseminate truth and enlighten the public. Similar questions remain to this day, but today, attention tends to focus more on television than print news.

The attention that television has garnered is not surprising given the speed with which the medium has become the foremost source of political information for most Americans. Burns Roper ( Roper Organization, 1981), in documenting trends in television use over two decades, found

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