Stephen Bates


On his book An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Cover Interview of May 26, 2021

In a nutshell

In 1943, Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce sponsored the greatest collaboration of public intellectuals in the twentieth century. He and University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins summoned the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the Pulitzer-winning poet Archibald MacLeish, and ten other preeminent American thinkers to form the Commission on Freedom of the Press. Luce wanted them to rethink freedom and responsibility of the news media. Assembling a committee to answer a philosophical question is an audacious notion, maybe a ludicrous one, but, miraculously, it worked.

After seventeen meetings, Commission members completed their final report, A Free and Responsible Press, which was published in 1947. It castigated the media for imperiling democracy with short-sighted, irresponsible behavior, including sensationalism, newsroom bias, and ads that masquerade as news. The press mostly rejected the criticism and denounced the critics. Even Henry Luce found the report disappointing. Yet in the years since, it has become a classic, the most important statement ever produced on the press and its role in a democracy. It has influenced the Supreme Court’s approach to free speech and shaped the education of generations of journalists.

Even so, it’s little known outside schools of journalism, and the full story behind it has never been told. My book shows how these thinkers debated vital questions, nearly failed in their mission, and in the end reached conclusions that are pertinent today—in some respects more pertinent now than in 1947. Broadly, the book captures a moment when public intellectuals held sway over matters of public interest. It also shows how a group of them, despite diverse philosophical views (plus big egos), listened to one another, established areas of agreement, explored areas of disagreement, and, often, changed their minds. In this way, Commission members modeled what they were trying to promote in American society: engaged, open-minded political discourse.