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

The wide angle

A Free and Responsible Press is a classic, but many of the Commission’s most incisive and prescient observations didn’t make it into the book. As the transcripts of their meetings show, they deliberated under conditions surprisingly similar to our own. They talked of polarization, rage, and the potential for violence if racists and nativists fell under the spell of a demagogue—much like the January 6 assault on the Capitol. The demagogue might be partly a media creation, like Charles Lindbergh in their day or, in ours, the star of The Apprentice. They said that partisan media make money from polarization, but in the process they become its prisoners: The audience won’t tolerate any deviation from the party line—as Fox News discovered when it began losing viewers to more strident outlets. They talked of disinformation spread by faceless organizations, including foreign governments, and of speakers de-platformed by ideological opponents. They worried about a scenario similar to what’s now being called post-truth politics: If arguments over facts get bafflingly complex, Americans might conclude that truth is unknowable, the news media untrustworthy, and democratic participation futile.

As a fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communication Policy Studies in the 1990s, I wrote a monograph about the Commission, and I have returned to the topic periodically in the years since. I especially enjoy following the transcripts of the committee’s meetings, as some of the great minds of the twentieth century work through lofty philosophical problems, with the occasional detour into such mundane matters as comic strips and advise to the lovelorn.

Every few years, somebody proposes a reboot of the Hutchins Commission to address current media problems, but it can’t be repeated. If intellectuals of the same caliber still exist (some people doubt it), they don’t have the same status. Hutchins was twice on the cover of Time, and he thought seriously about running for president based on his stewardship of the University of Chicago. That’s virtually inconceivable for a university leader today.