By Nathan Barton
Whether we call it the “press” or the “media” or lump it together in the general category of “free speech,” most people (both in the Fifty States and much of the rest of the world) consider their freedom to be important.
Important, as far as being an essential part of human freedom. “Although I disagree with what you are saying, I will defend your right to say it.” Free speech was both a recognized right (first of Englishmen and then of Americans) AND nearly the first freedom which dictators and tyrants attempt to snatch.
There has long been a odd set of relationships between government and, first newspapers, later radio and television. Newspapers are, by their very nature, political. Radio and television became even more political. Media, like any other invention of mankind, can be used for good or for bad; it can be used to promote liberty or to control others.
There are, in my opinion, three types of “media” or “press” or even “free speech.”
- One-on-one or one-on few communications, usually two-way.
- One-to-many communications, to a known audience, and with some fairly extensive opportunity for two-way communications.
- One-to-many communications, generally one-way to a largely-anonymous audience, with little opportunity for two-way communications.
Ordinary conversation, teaching, letters, and even some assemblies are examples of the first. The second includes newsletters and speeches (in meetings and on soapboxes), recordings (especially cassettes and CDs) and even many magazines. The third is “mass media:” newspapers and mass-circulation magazines, broadcast radio, and television (broadcast and cable). And many other methods in recent years; CD, DVD, podcasts, streaming video, and more. (Most of this commentary deals with “mass media.”)
Of course, the press has ALWAYS been more than just newspapers or their predecessors, broadsheets, and I think it is addressed this way in the US Constitution. “Press” implies the printing of books and pamphlets and posters, as well as newspapers, magazines, and broadsides. Not just by publishing companies but by anyone. The same applies to the media: not just broadcast radio and television, but recordings (anyone remember wax and vinyl records, or reel-to-reel tape?) and performances. And they have always been political: promoting and advocating one or another political position – both good and bad, for and against liberty.
In multiple ways, media is used to fight against government of all kinds. From absolute monarchies and totalitarian dictatorships to the most “benign” of democratic and republican governments – even governments which approach anarchy in some ways. But those governments themselves use media to confront and defeat their enemies, also. The media can either be highly critical enemies of government (or parts of government) and the state, or the most rabid of supporters. And indeed, media has been and is a part of government, a tool of the state.
In the past 30+ years, the nature of media, of the press, has changed. This is hardly the first time. After the invention of the letter press and movable type, there were great advances in the technology and in how that technology was applied. The invention of the broadside (poster), broadsheet, and newspaper quickly followed printing of books and pamphlets. Improvements in both printing and communications had huge impacts. The post office, the telegraph, and the telephone greatly expanded the importance and utility of the media. Photography and then moving pictures also made vast changes. Radio, then broadcast radio, and broadcast (then cable) television totally changed the nature and the power (influence) of media in the Twentieth Century.
But that rate of change really exploded starting about 1990. The technology drove the change. Internet, cell phones, electronic (digital) cameras (still and video), desktop and laptop and palm computers, smart phones and padds (tablets) have allowed the explosion of media and the press we have seen in the past several decades. And the change during this time has been profound, and with great danger and great potential for good.
We started out with usenet and bulletin boards – long distance type 1 communications, which rapidly expanded both with e-mail and various forums. As more and more types of communications appeared, the boundaries between the three types has faded greatly, at least electronically. And the purveyors of type 3 (“mass media” especially) have been under increasing pressure. The technology and invention of such things as news websites, Facebook, Twitter, and all their competitors have directly impacted on the value (and profitability) of newspapers (national daily, weekly, and local weekly and monthly), and broadcast and cable/satellite television and radio. And challenged their power, as well.
Indirectly, the changes have fractured society, as well: We as a people no longer depend on just three or four networks for entertainment and one or two syndication services (AP, UPI, etc.) for most of our reading materials – not just news but entertainment and advertising. We have less and less in common with each other, as a result. This is not either good or bad, just a fact.
Media, though, has and is having far more impact than just that. I’ll write about that in the last part tomorrow.