Walter Lippmann on Liberty and the News

Over the weekend I read the 1920 essays Liberty and The News (reissued recently) in which Walter Lippmann trails the arguments in his more famous Public Opinion concerning the dysfunctional relationship between the press and politics. He wrote at a time when formal wartime censorship was giving way to self-censorship in the guise of jingoistic patriotism and 'red' scares, and when populism held sway in politics. His critique paved the way for a more serious era in American journalism in the decades that followed. Ninety years on, I couldn't help but be struck by the parallels with our own time, however, pondering the celebrity and scandal-driven press of our era. And agreed with Sidney Blumenthal's afterword, in which the former Clinton adviser writes: “The crisis of journalism cannot be disentangled from the crisis of national government.”

Of course one key difference between now and then is the advent of the mass of material available online. Whether or not this paves the way for the process of engagement by interested citizens which is Lippmann's ideal is another matter, although on balance I'm optimistic. He wrote that form matters more than content for sustaining political liberty, broadly understood: “Liberty is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information on which we act.” The essays are well worth re-reading given the emerging body of evidence from institutional economics on the relevance of the process of democracy and in particular an active media for good governance – more important than the formalities of elections and parliaments. This builds of course on Sen's profoundly important work which also highlighted the press. Tim Besley comes to mind as well worth reading on this issue.

The impact of the web on newspaper business models is a separate but related issue. Circulation figures indicate that readers aren't getting what they want from newspapers, which might be partly to do with price (free vs not free) but also partly content. I'll restrict myself, however, to pointing out two interesting recent articles on news: one from the UK, by John Naughton; another from the US by James DeLong.