This article first appeared as a discussion post for the JRN200 course at University of Arizona Global Campus.
I mentioned briefly before that a democratic society is not defined by what kind of government structure or economic system it uses but rather by the principle of the collective voice of the people being the highest moral mandate 1 . John Dewey, an American philosopher known for his work in social and educational reform, said that intersubjective communication – discourse between multiple people over multiple topics – is the “democratic criterion,” the required function for democracy to work 2 . In this context, the primary purpose of the press is to both inform the people of critical topics and to reflect the position of the people on those critical topics, to be the facilitator of intersubjective communication.
However, this responsibility has not always been practiced well. The history of yellow journalism 3 and now media’s infestation with “fake news” 4 has undermined much of the public’s faith in news media, which intrinsically affects how the government views purveyors of news 5 . When the Supreme Court no longer considers a news organization to be a legitimate and honest piece of the democratic criterion, it may no longer extend First Amendment rights to that organization. If a media channel issues inflammatory rhetoric, false claims, or advocates for criminal activity, that falls under categorical limitations that deny that channel protection from legal action 6 .
But, then, why are there so many obviously fake news stories still, to the point where entire successful media companies are based on nothing but fake (not satirical) “news”? The answer is that what we currently call “fake news” acts as a powerful means of propaganda 7 , one that is wielded by an increasingly oligarchical power structure 8 . Oligarchic systems are ruled by a small number of usually privatized (corporate) elites who control most if not all of the primary means of production, including the media. For a legal or even constitutional challenge to be made, someone has to initiate the process, and that’s not going to happen if doing so would endanger the main tools of the Powers That Be.
Thus, it falls to the individuals – to reporters and writers – to hold themselves and their organizations accountable. The point of a democracy is strength in numbers. There may be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of media organizations that tolerate being cogs in the propaganda machine, but that doesn’t preclude good, ethical people from doing better whenever they can. Our challenge as journalists should now be to always do better than our predecessors, to not just double- but triple-check our sources, to consider the impact of our work, and to tailor it specifically with the intention of making the world a better place. My suspicion (hope) is that there’s more of “us” (ethical journalists) than there are of “them” (propagandists), and it will take all of us loudly telling the truth to overpower them.
That’s the democratic thing to do.
Borchard, G. A. (2019). 8: Yellow journalism: Pulitzer and Hearst battle for readers. In A narrative history of the American press. Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/9781138998469
Christiano, T., & Bajaj, S. (2021). Democracy. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/democracy/
Dotts, B. (2016). Dewey anticipates Habermas’s paradigm of communication: The critique of individualism and the basis for moral authority in democratic education. Education and Culture, 32(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-78743-625-120181016
Filak, V. F. (2021). Chapter 8: Laws and ethics in media writing. In Dynamics of media writing (3rd ed., pp. 130–152). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Jones, R. A. (2015). What the Supreme Court thinks of the press and why it matters. Alabama Law Review, 66(2), 253–271.
McGonagle, T. (2017). “Fake news”: False fears or real concerns? Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, 35(4), 203–209. https://doi.org/10.1177/0924051917738685
Moniz Bandeira, L. A. (2019). The US republic and its transformation into an oligarchic tyranny. In The world disorder: US hegemony, proxy wars, terrorism and humanitarian catastrophes (pp. 11–20). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-03204-3_2
Zollmann, F. (2019). Bringing propaganda back into news media studies. Critical Sociology, 45(3), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920517731134