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


Just as Hutchins Commission members worked under conditions similar to ours, they discussed ideas that people are discussing again today. They talked of using tax money to subsidize competition in the media, an issue that has arisen again as a result of the internet’s devastating impact on news organizations. They discussed “rumor clinics” to debunk falsehoods, like the fact-checkers of today, though they worried that debunking a falsehood might merely spread it more widely, which is also a concern now. They talked of affixing warning labels to misinformation, like the cautionary notes that social media applied to dubious information about the 2020 election. One Commission member said that the warning labels should tell readers where to find antidotes to falsehoods, just as some of the cautions on social media linked to reliable information about the election.

Commission members extensively debated how to address monopoly and other market concentration in the media. Democracy can’t survive, Reinhold Niebuhr said, if corporations exercise their power in a way that suppresses ideas. Robert Hutchins outlined three policy alternatives for dealing with giant media corporations: break them up, regulate them as common carriers, or subsidize competing companies. Yet the members also worried about the potential politicization of antitrust enforcement and other government interventions. (They didn’t know about FDR’s secret campaign against the Chicago Tribune.) These discussions bear on regulatory questions concerning big corporations today, especially social-media and other internet platforms.

One Commission member, William Ernest Hocking, drew a contrast between what he called the liberty of the garden and the liberty of the weeds. He thought that political discourse should be tidier, like a neatly pruned garden. Today, app stores, social-media platforms, and online video and book providers are weeding their gardens by censoring some perspectives—as is their right, because the First Amendment doesn’t constrain corporations, only the government. More and more of our political discourse now takes place in these online gardens where the First Amendment doesn’t apply. Speakers still have full-fledged liberty of the weeds when they’re in a public forum, like the plaza around a city hall, but it may be harder to draw a crowd there when everybody is online.

Hutchins Commission members didn’t come up with foolproof solutions. As Niebuhr said in one meeting, “all great problems are insoluble.” But their work does, I think, provide a framework for thinking about the problems and potential solutions. The issue at the heart of their work, how a media system can best serve democracy, is an eternal one.