Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Press Freedom and Self-control

Are the communications media the sensory organs of the collective? Functionally yes. If the press is the ears and eyes of society—and the press simply reports what it “senses”—a free press is clearly valuable and legitimate. To illustrate, let me view this at the personal level. What I see out there is initially simply—what I see. The images are neutral. The valuation of what I see comes at a slight delay; it is another function. When the press undertakes not only to report but also to value the news, to interpret it, to give it emphasis in various ways, why then it morphs into something else. At present here, where press-freedom is guaranteed, the media have become functionally like a collective consciousness. Continuous coverage of disasters or mass killings literally saturates the public awareness with news packaged to excess: excess horror, excess sentimentality, excess outrage, on and on.

Let’s assume it’s so: the media are the collective consciousness. But then in turn the press should exercise a corresponding self-control. If self-control isn’t exercised, the freedom granted to the press becomes problematical. It begins to constellate other situations—like needlessly yelling fire in a crowded theater. The operant assumption is that the public has self-control. Therefore the press is free to profit from the exploitation of anything that happens.

But the operant assumption is false. When it comes to electronic media, especially television, the public is conditioned by it. TV watching is almost impossible to avoid. News channels have evolved into quasi-entertainment channels. Therefore lack of self-control by the rulers of the press has translated ever more into lack of self-control by the public. Curiously all of us—not least those who commit mass murders—live more in our minds than in our bodies. Hence our coverage of mass killings may well serve as inspiration for yet other marginal people to enjoy a moment of glorious fame.

The Chinese understand the relationships I’ve sketched out here. Their own imposition of self-control on the media is certainly excessive. Our version is the polar opposite. The right way is somewhere in between. A story yesterday reported on the Chinese censoring a paper because it editorialized in favor of a more constitutional government in China. Amusing. Here the Constitution protect press freedom. And things have slid too far down the slope. Therefore it has become virtually impossible for the Federal Communications Commission to clean up our media or impose some semblance of discipline on them. We all own the spectrum. We license some to use it. Most abuse that freedom. And to undo that, we would have to change our Constitution. Good luck with that. But if my last post on enantiodromia is correct, in the future it will happen here. And in China the press will be freed. And therefore I feel for future generations in China while also being more confident about the future of our own.

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