the research report

Guiding Starr

Freedom of expression is not freedom of the press

Paul Starr’s short essay, “An Unexpected Crisis: The News Media in Postindustrial Democracies” in the International Journal of Press/Politics (2012), is recommended reading, especially the second paragraph. That’s where Starr, the Princeton sociologist, Pulitzer-winning historian, and the author of the far-reaching Creation of the Media (2005), cuts through tons of clutter about the impact of the digital revolution on media and democracy:

The digital revolution has been good for freedom of expression because it has increased the diversity of voices in the public sphere. The digital revolution has been good for freedom of information because it has made government documents and data directly accessible to more people and has fostered a culture that demands transparency from powerful institutions. But the digital revolution has both revitalized and weakened freedom of the press.

If we could be mindful of not conflating freedom of expression and freedom of information with freedom of the press, we’d make a world of progress in talking and thinking about the ongoing communications revolution. Of course, as Starr suggests, growing freedom of expression is particularly important in countries in which basic legal protections for the press have not been well established. But in his essay, Starr is concerned with the freedom of the press in post-industrial democracies, focusing his analysis on the United States and parts of Europe where newspaper employment has sharply declined.

In these nations, he writes, few people foresaw that new technologies would lead to a condition in which “the public would fragment, the audience for news would shrink, advertisers would be able to reach their markets without sponsoring news, and the traditional commercial basis for financing journalism would be shattered.”

Starr has particular concerns about the changes to media in the US. He worries about a loss of newsgathering capacity, which, with fewer journalists holding power to account, may lead to an increase in corruption in high places. And he’s concerned about the growth of partisan news. While Starr expresses no objections to this in itself, he fears that the decline of its opposite—nonpartisan news that seeks a general, mass audience and from which people with limited political interest incidentally pick up political knowledge—means a declining percentage of people who get news in any form in an ordinary day.

Starr acknowledges that the data is not all in on this—there may be surprises just a few steps down the road. But he doesn’t consider that the bygone news world of 1945 to the 1980s (in which, as he puts it, “reading the newspaper over breakfast and watching the television news in the evening were regular events, almost rituals, in many families”) was a historically specific moment, and not one to set on a pedestal. For the first half of that period, the press, by the standards of a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate journalism, was no paragon of holding power accountable (too much “hushed, reverential behavior” as The Washington Post’s Meg Greenfield recalled it), nor a vanguard of including minorities and women in its coverage or in its newsrooms. That masses gathered most evenings to watch on three networks twenty-odd minutes that passed as “the news” for an informed democracy is not something to recall with blind reverence either.

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So we aren’t saying that there’s nothing to argue over in Starr’s elegant essay; and his suggestion that the country needs a stronger investment in public broadcasting as a multi-platform news system (with which we agree) many others will contest. But this essay clarifies thinking about the digital transformation in journalism—especially that incisive second paragraph.

Michael Schudson and Katherine Fink are contributors to CJR.