Comprehensive Essay on Pluralism and Press Freedom

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Another assumption of libertarianism, one which has grown up In the twentieth century, is that a free press must be pluralistic.

This assumption, like the one that a free press must be egalitarian, has given birth to much criticism of the press system. If, for example, the media system is not as pluralistic (the term is usually not defined) as certain critics might like, it is indicated as not being truly libertarian and therefore in need of revamping-or scrapping.

Most critics of the press today gather their statistics about mergers, group owner­ships, chains and the like, and bemoan what they see as a loss of press pluralism. They even go further: they equate this with a failure of libertarian theory.

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Several things are wrong with this kind of thinking : First the concept of pluralism implied in the above criticism (unit pluralism) does not assure an informed citizenry-for it is possible for four independent media to provide no greater variety of news and views than two media belonging to the same owner. Secondly, and more important, the contention that pluralism (of any kind) if necessary in a libertarian system, is fallacious.

Attempts by those in modern societies to make the press system more responsible for forcing pluralism are. in effect, repudiating libertarianism. They are doomed to failure, for they can never force enough pluralism to pleats everybody. Libertarianism will probably always result in pluralism but if forced can never result in libertarianism.

One’s thinking about press pluralism would become a little framework in which to consider the term. Of course, there are obviously many ways to define pluralism, but one typology which has been useful is presented below-giving three types and three levels of pluralism:

1. Message Pluralism:

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Here the emphasis is on the diversity of messages to which a person is able to expose himself. It should be realised that this is not the same as the diversity (or number of media units to which a person may expose himself). The way to get at this is through content analysis and through other procedures only.

2. Media (Unit) Pluralism:

This kind of pluralism is the one which is usually considered and used by those who would indict the press system for loss of pluralism. Here the quantity of, or diversity of, ownerships of media units is an important consideration. It is assumed that the more units you have (or the more ownerships), the more view­points and stories you will have.

3. Communicator Pluralism:

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The emphasis here is on the number and diversity of message-encoders or message- senders. And the assumption is usually that the wider the diversity of communicator types and the greater the number of communicators (using the mass media), the greater will be the diversity of information and opinions. This, of course, is not necessarily true, but it would appear to be more valid than the Unit Pluralism assumption.

The only way to get at this type of pluralism in a sound methodo­logical way would be to study the communicators (their backgrounds, education, religion, etc.) and then study the messages they send, and then see what correlation exists between the diversity of backgrounds and the diversity of messages they communicate.

Of the three types of pluralism the most significant one is Message Pluralism. The only way to study it is through content analysis, and this must be thorough and continuing. One must look for the diversity of opinions and information’s in a certain universe of messages at a particular time for comparison with similar analyses at other times and in other universes.

Levels of Pluralism:

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Now let us consider briefly the levels of pluralism:

1. System Pluralism:

This level is the one many writers emphasize and, if it is good (many media or diversity of messages), it is held as something very commendable; there are a great many bits of information and viewpoints available in the total media system.

2. Community Pluralism:

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This level brings the concept of pluralism closer to home, limits it to a smaller geographical or social community-such as a region, state or city. The question of importance here is how much diversity is present at the local level? What counts at this level is what items and viewpoints are available in the media of a specific locality?

3. Individual (Audience Member) Pluralism:

This is the ideal level of pluralism just as Message Pluralism is the ideal type of pluralism. At this level, pluralism is related to that information which gets to the individual citizen and is not what is available somewhere in the media of a country or a community.

In other words, at this level-the perception level of the audience-the amount and diversity of information which the person actually exposes himself to (or assimilates) is the only important consideration. The way to study this level would be to study the individual citizen, trying to ascertain through recall studies, interviews, etc. what he was getting from the pluralism of messages revolving about him.

Freedom within the Libertarian Framework :

According to Merrill, press freedom within the libertarian con­text of the West, can be considered in four ways. Each one might be considered a different spectrum which could be briefly described as (1) the potency or non -potency of government control,;(2) the political extremes in governmental philosophy; (3) philosophical or psychologi­cal inclination; and (4) governmental and private ownership of journa­listic enterprises.

(1) The Two Extremes:

At one end of this spectrum is anarchy and at the other total government control. The person who believes in press freedom has a tendency toward anarchy. He rebels against government control-at least very much government control-and wants himself and his social unit (for the journalist: his medium) to be under little or no government compulsion or direction.

(2) The Mid-way Approach:

Authoritarianism whether on the right or on the left tends to stifle freedom of the press and to dissipate media or journalistic autonomy. Therefore, the ideal spot for a free press on a Communism/Fascism spectrum would be in the center. Most journalists (at least in the Western libertarian world) would agree with this if they were using journalistic autonomy as the key to their concept.

A free press had better attempt to follow a path about half-way between the tempting and ever-beckoning poles ‘of Communism and Fascism. Truly the middle-way is more compatible with journalistic autonomy and media self-determinism. Both extremes are areas where the press would have to submit itself to elite, persons or groups, who would dictate to the press and determine its actions in line with their own interests and socio­political philosophies.

(3) Between Two Poles:

This is probably a more controversial spectrum than the others for its ploes are semantically difficult terms, Liberalism and Conservatism. A free press, here, is midway between these two poles-the same as it was midway between Communism and Fascism.

Although Liberalism has the more favourable connota­tion, the pragmatic Liberal or Liberal government can be just as authoritarian or elitist as can the pragmatic conservative or conser­vative government. In fact, it is quite possible that today’s Liberal is tomorrow’s Conservative-at least in the sense of wanting to conserve his brand of liberalism. At the extremes, Liberals and Conservatives are arrogant, self-righteous, heavy-handed, dictatorial, and opposed to criticism and open discussion.

They know what is best for the society and will enforce their will if they get the chance. The Free Press or the autonomous journalist had best steer a middle course between them so as not to get entangled in the ideological nets thrown far out by the clever ideologies of both groups.

(4) More Autonomy under Free Enterprise:

Capitalism more than socialism expands the opportunities of personal and media autonomy, competition and the clash of ideas. Therefore, the Free Press finds its most compatible home on this spectrum far toward the capitalistic end. Capitalistic societies have certainly contributed more to personal and journalistic autonomy than any other societies in the world. Capitalism engenders individualists, persons who like to compete.

Socialism engenders conformists, persons who like to adapt and move along together. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1848, expressed how danger to freedom emerged in socialism. He referred to democracy (which he contrasted to socialism) as an individualist institution standing in irreconcilable conflict with socialism. He wrote, in part:

“Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom; socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agency, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference; while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

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