The American news media, we’re told, face an unprecedented crisis. Public trust is eroding. The nation seems to be splintering, as media outlets obligingly provide news tailored to their audience’s ideological preconceptions. For a representative description, consider the introduction to “Crisis in Democracy,” a 2019 report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy:
Political polarization has reached crisis proportions. Americans cannot assume that their fellow citizens are operating under the same set of facts. Many of us live inside echo chambers where only our own political sentiments can be heard, and distrust those who do not agree with our particular viewpoint. Provocateurs and hatemongers, foreign and domestic, are fueling disagreements, and media are amplifying the divides.
The situation might be dire, but it’s not as novel as we might think. More than 70 years before the Knight Commission, another group of intellectuals gathered to analyze the media’s role in polarization, echo chambers, and provocateurs. The Commission on Freedom of the Press, as it was called, blamed these problems on the media. The final report, “A Free and Responsible Press,” published in 1947, charged that journalists were doing a wretched job, abusing the First Amendment with their sensationalism, sloppiness, bias, and outright lies, and in the process imperiling self-government, world peace, and even human civilization.
The theoretical underpinnings of this analysis chiefly came from William Ernest Hocking, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Harvard. He considered the First Amendment “glorious” but “potentially mischievous,” and he took it upon himself to recalibrate it. Initially he proposed adding a codicil to the Bill of Rights stating that its freedoms extend only to those who exercise them responsibly. Other commission members resisted a rewrite of the Constitution, so he came up with a way to reconceive it without changing the text. He decided that, properly interpreted, the phrasing “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” sometimes means “Congress shall make law enhancing the freedom of speech.”