This comparison helps to highlight certain features of the press that are important and relevant to the new world. In the United States, the Supreme Court has played a major role in articulating the special role a free press can play, focusing primarily on political and social benefits. The press is part of the marketplace of ideas through which we seek to understand our world and find truth. It also serves the needs of citizens in exercising their sovereign responsibilities. It does this by exposing the misdeeds and errors of government, and by informing us more generally about the issues we must face and resolve. Collectively, the press is our national public forum.
Now, with globalization well underway, it is imperative that we begin to think more systematically about how we will build and develop the concept of a free press for a new global public forum.
This is part of a larger historical process. Authority and structures related to authority have to shift as human activity changes. This happened throughout the last century in many areas of the society. When the US economy went from a collection of mostly local and regional affairs to a national system, policymaking and regulation had to shift accordingly. One example is our central banking system. Established in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was organized to provide twelve regional banks with the authority to deal with what was then a set of regional economies. But in the ensuing decades, as the economy became national in scope, a more centralized banking authority was needed, and the powers of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington grew accordingly.
We can see the same process unfolding over the twentieth century with respect to the First Amendment and the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the press. As the issues faced by the nation became more and more national in reach, in part because of the growth of a national economy, and as the technologies of communication facilitated a national discussion, the power of local communities to set the balance between a free press and other societal interests (like reputation, privacy, offensiveness, and so on) became intolerable. Censorship anywhere effectively constituted censorship everywhere, since speakers in the new national forum would naturally be inhibited by local censorship. This was one of the great insights of the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which nationalized the rules with respect to defamation laws throughout the country.
As we move toward more global systems, a similar evolution needs to occur. We have the technological capacity for an effective global discussion led by a vibrant press, but two critical elements are missing: First, we do not have sufficient international consensus about the vital role of a free, independent, and professional global press. And, second, here in the US we do not really have the capacity for high-quality, professional journalism on a global scale.
On the first point: many nations, of course, actively fear an independent press and see journalism more as an instrument of governmental policy than as a source of objective information and analysis. In these countries there is debilitating censorship and restrictions on the media’s access to information. But the problems this creates for the free flow of information and ideas are no longer limited to speech in those nations. What happens in a system of global communication is the same thing that happens with local censorship in a national system—censorship anywhere chills speakers everywhere. A lot of what we will need to know about the world in the coming years will come through the efforts of “local” journalists. When “local” journalism is suppressed, therefore, our ability to hear and know is curtailed. In other words, censorship in, say, China, can be as significant, or even more significant to us than censorship in, say, California.