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An Aristocracy of Critics

Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Stephen Bates (View Bio)
Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2020.

An Aristocracy of Critics

The Commission on Freedom of the Press was one of the greatest collaborations of intellectuals in the twentieth century. Financed by Time Inc. publisher Henry R. Luce, the committee included preeminent philosophers, educators, theologians, and constitutional scholars, with University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins as chair. Starting in 1943, commission members spent three years wrestling with subjects that are as pertinent as ever: partisan media and distorted news, activists who silence rather than rebut opponents, conspiracy theories spread by faceless groups, hate speech, and the survivability of American democracy in a post-truth age. The report that emerged, “A Free and Responsible Press,” is a classic, but much of the commission’s greatest wisdom never made it into print. In this book, journalist and First Amendment scholar Stephen Bates reveals how these towering intellects debated some of the most vital questions of their time—and reached conclusions urgently relevant today.

"In 1944, Henry Luce, the overbearing, self-aggrandizing publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life, enjoined Robert Hutchins, the ‘imperious’ president of the University of Chicago, to lead a Commission on Freedom of the Press. In a fascinating, prodigiously researched intellectual history, media scholar Bates offers a penetrating examination of the commission, which resulted—after 17 meetings, 58 witnesses, 225 staff interviews, and a hefty financial investment—in a controversial report, A Free and Responsible Press. Both maligned and praised when it was published in 1947, the report, Bates writes, illuminates the problems of democracy and the media that continue to vex the U.S. At a time when the public deeply distrusted journalists, Luce directed his commission to investigate newsroom bias, ‘foreign and domestic propaganda, corporate domination of political discourse, a fragmenting and polarized electorate, hate speech, and demagoguery, as well as what we now call echo chambers, trolls, deplatforming, and post- truth politics.’ The commission’s egotistical, opinionated members, writes the author, ‘were not necessarily suited to committee work.’ However, they agreed that the media exerted a powerful force in shaping public opinion, even when experts told them that most people read only what they already believe and only about 20% care about public affairs. Bates fashions shrewd, deft characterizations of individual members: among them, ‘jaunty mystic’ philosopher William Ernest Hocking; pessimistic theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; long-winded propaganda expert Harold Laswell; outspoken poet Archibald MacLeish. On the whole, the commission embraced ‘the democratic hypothesis’ that ‘if people have access to the facts and arguments, they will govern themselves more wisely than anyone can govern them.’ But they mounted no evidence, preferring instead ‘to meander in vague philosophical generalities rather than do the dirty hard work of digging for facts.’ Nevertheless, Bates argues persuasively, the report remains influential as a seminal examination of the media. A well-constructed, timely study, clearly relevant to current debates." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)