Interview with Sam Lebovic
Sam Lebovic is an assistant professor of history at George Mason University. His most recent book, Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America was released in 2016 from Harvard University Press. Dr. Lebovic will be giving a talk on his book on 8 March at 3:30PM in the Weigley Room (Gladfelter Hall 914) under the auspices of CENFAD's colloquium series.
CENFAD's Thomas J. Davis Fellow Brian McNamara recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Lebovic to discuss the origins of the book and its implications for our present moment. A transcript of their conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, follows below. CENFAD thanks Dr. Lebovic for agreeing to speak with Brian; we hope that you will enjoy his talk on 8 March.
McNamara: I want to start by thanking you for agreeing to speak with me and to participate in this interview. I’m very excited to talk to you, not only because I enjoyed the book very much, but also because of what a portentous fit your research is, given the way that things have gone in the past few months. I think you have anticipated a number of things that have gone on in this country in the past several months, so I’m very excited to talk to you about the book, and about how your work might intersect with some things that are going on today in the world. My first question is pretty straightforward. What brought you to this project? And more specifically, perhaps, what brought you, being Australian, to the study of American history?
Lebovic: I don’t have a good answer to what brought me to American history. I need to get one! My general answer is that the questions that are of interest to me around mass media, democracy, and the flow of ideas seemed to be best studied in the context of the U.S. in the middle decades of the twentieth century. That seemed to be pretty important to establishing a template that was more wide-ranging. But there are also autobiographical reasons: Good undergraduate teaching, an inability to speak languages or do research in foreign languages. So that’s the double incentive. The project on the press itself actually had a bit of a circuitous route. I was very interested in questions of mass culture and their role in political culture in the 1930s through the 1950s. As I was reading a lot of that literature, I was curious why the approaches that historians had taken to studying the film industry, the music industry, etc., hadn’t been applied to the news media, which I thought might have had more of an impact on political culture. As I was reading Michael Denning’s book, The Cultural Front, which is about unionization in the mass culture industries, he had all these references to the Newspaper Guild. I thought it might be interesting to see what the Newspaper Guild was up to, in terms of the politics of labor and cultural production. I went and looked at Editor and Publisher, which was the trade journal of the newspapers, to see what was happening. As I was flicking through the pages, I found all of these debates about press freedom, and what a free press could be. Those intersected with some thoughts I’d had generally reading media criticism – Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian etc – and I realized there was a rich history in these years that we didn’t know about and that would be interesting both historically and for what had always struck me as the problems of press freedom in the contemporary moment.
McNamara: Getting into the book a little bit – in the book you distinguish between “freedom of the press,” and “freedom of the news.” What is the difference between these two ideas, and how is the distinction between them relevant to the history of free speech that you’re charting in the book?
Lebovic: The distinction between freedom of the news and freedom of the press is FDR’s distinction. It’s an off-the-cuff distinction that he makes, but to me, it captures a deeper distinction between two types of visions of press freedom. One is focused on negative rights: the right to free expression, which is treated by the Supreme Court as though there’s no difference between the right to free publication and the right to free speech, generally. As long as the government doesn’t censor those things or interfere with those things, you have the negative right to free speech. That’s the version that we’re very familiar with and the story there is actually a pretty nice one over the course of the twentieth century. We get more and more rights to say and publish what we’d like.
Running alongside that, I found all of these people who thought that in the twentieth century, press freedom had to mean something more than just the right to publish without government interference. They didn’t all agree on what they thought that ‘something else’ should be, so coming up with another term to capture it was difficult, but that second right – freedom of the news, or rights to information – that’s a positive right. What you care about is not the absence of government interference, but you want something in the press of a certain quality, you want a certain diversity of information, a certain accuracy of information. The book then charts a whole variety of different attempts to guarantee that right by reforming the economics of the newspaper industry, by providing access rights, by challenging government secrecy, and so forth. Spoiler alert – all of those fail, essentially, over the twentieth century. What we have now is an incredibly well-respected right to free speech and free expression, which is what we think press freedom is, and we’ve forgotten about those other sets of issues that could have been protected.
McNamara: Another historiography that your book ties into, at least in terms of the apparatus that you analyze press freedom through is the history of capitalism. Studies of the rise of American capitalism are in vogue right now, and the metaphor of the market suffuses the argument that you make throughout the book. What links do you see between your work and other studies of American capitalism, and what differences do you see? Where are the connections here that are fruitful?
Lebovic: I’ve always been very interested in Marxist critiques of capitalism. I had not identified myself as someone working in the history of capitalism, but in looking back at the book and having had other people point it out, it’s kind of obvious that I am. What I have in common with these scholars is trying to write the history of a capitalist industry – in this case, the production of information in the marketplace – without taking for granted that it’s a free market as it presents itself, in this case, particularly in the law, and in political philosophy. I’m interested in looking at both the political and institutional history of the marketplace and how that’s produced, paying attention to the profit motive and capitalist labor relations as historical things that could have been regulated in a different fashion. The absence of regulation produces a laissez-faire version of press freedom, which hopefully by the end of the book, readers see as not obvious or natural, but rather curious. I think that’s one obvious connection.
McNamara: That leads me to another broad, methodological question. How do we balance structure and contingency as historians? I think this is something you do quite well in the book. There are folks creating systems in your book whose actions fuel the rise of a laissez-faire definition of freedom of speech, but these systems eventually overwhelm any efforts to offer a prolonged or cohesive program of reform that would speak to the right to freedom of the news, rather than freedom of the press. How do we as historians do that balancing work?
Lebovic: It’s a difficult question, obviously, and I’m happy to hear you think I did O.K. with it. I think the best we can hope for is to do O.K. with it, which is to not presume in any given moment that one or the other is the determinative factor, but to look at people making actions in situations not of their choosing. And because the situations are not of their choosing, the power relations are always disproportionate. To give a concrete example, the efforts that were made during the New Deal to regulate the newspaper industry were made by a set of reformers within the New Deal apparatus that had some power, but who were also politicians dependent upon good press coverage. The newspaper industry was a powerful industry both politically and economically, and it had more power. And it was also successful in mobilizing the kind of arguments – I don’t think those arguments were necessarily internally, logically the most persuasive – but they had some plausibility and they could get pushed powerfully. So that’s a kind of place where there’s a contingent moment, but where structures make it more likely that it will go one way than the other.
The one thing I was very keen to do in the book, and that I often find frustratingly absent when I’m teaching other books on large-scale transformations, was to make sure that the reader got a sense that not everything was inevitable, where the structures just kind of descend like the bars of a cage, and that there’s no way out. In each chapter I wanted to animate a serious alternative vision and show that it could have gone a different way, and then to try to account for the factors that meant that it didn’t. Over the book, things get grim in one sense, but there is always a trade-off taking place. And secondly, while I’m not sure how successfully I did this, I think a lot of the people who chose to prioritize a right to free speech over some of these more hopeful ideas about access to information or diversity in the newspaper market, did so not because they were dupes for free-market capitalism, but because they were genuinely concerned about difficult problems. One of the things that our vision of the free press does well, is that it’s a very simple principle that can guide you through some difficult problems. So the trade-off is not always that ‘good guys’ lose and ‘bad guys’ win, but that people are making difficult decisions that we can hopefully understand.
McNamara: You have a new article about the Beatles and global culture, and you’re starting to position your work in a global frame. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if there’s not an answer to this question, but is what happened to the press in the United States over the course of your book comparable to other places around the world? Is this a distinctly ‘American’ story, or are there fruitful comparisons with other places in the world?
Lebovic: This is something I’m beginning to work on now, because I am curious about that. My gut sense says that the dynamics in the U.S. do spread and become more universal, but that that is not a natural process, and that there’s an intellectual and a policy history behind it that I’m interested in tracing. I don’t as of yet know, and I don’t think we have a good story about how that happens. Something like the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, is now adopted in a large number of countries, and that is taken from the U.S. model, but how that happens is not straightforward. It seems to be largely European N.G.Os in the 1980s that spreads it for instance. I’m interested in how all of that plays out. The one thing that I do think is distinct in the American case is the very strict First Amendment jurisprudence which develops and colors the rest of those market developments. Europe tends to have more of a balancing act around free speech – obligations come with it, for instance, and that changes things. But that’s what I’m working on right now, so I’m afraid I don’t quite have a full answer yet.
McNamara: Great. Well, now, it’s time for the Trump questions. I’m being facetious, obviously, but maybe not so much. In the book, you highlight a significant constraint to the media throughout the twentieth century, and the print media especially, as availability of information. What the government gives media access to, which thus informs the content on which the media can report. What about veracity of information? How can journalists mediate the relationship that they have with the government – and here, I’m thinking not even necessarily of the government or state itself, but the hubbub over fact-checking during the presidential debates. There was a significant debate over whether or not it was the responsibility of the members of the media who moderated those debates to fact-check the two presidential candidates as they were debating policy. I’m wondering how this fits into the story that you are telling us in the book.
Lebovic: It’s an interesting problem. The first problem is the ideology of objectivity. The whole reason these questions are being raised now is that the idea of a professional ethos of objectivity, which as I show, emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, and was itself a product of corporate consolidation of the news media resulting in a lack of diversity of outlets. I mean, I think it makes perfect sense to suggest that the press can call out a source as not telling the truth if they are, in fact, not telling the truth, and it has always surprised me that such a practice seems to be controversial. The bigger question is how you report on falsehoods, and whether they deserve to be reported on at all. There, I think, it seems fine to report on them if there’s then an apparatus in place such that they don’t drown out the rest of the story. The problem is, in part because of the cult of objectivity, in part because of newspaper economics, it’s just a lot easier for journalists who are not paid enough to write stories that are basically stenography of official handouts and official transcripts. It’s cheaper to go to a press briefing and write a story then it is to go out and do in-depth policy reporting or fact-checking. So what you get, which I think was a real problem in the debates and in the election generally, is that politics and political journalism end almost entirely focused on the level of discourse. One side asserts something, the other asserts a contradiction, and there’s no final level of reckoning, which I think has multiple causes in the culture, but one of them at least is that the press has not had the professional interest or the economic resources to push things to a final reckoning. I talk about this as endless ‘bubbles of disagreement.’ The idea that truth will come out of the clash of ideas requires that at some point you have to sit down and compare the two sets of statements, and that seems not to be happening.
McNamara: Tied into that – one of the things that I found really interesting in the book was your treatment of the decline of partisan newspapers, and machine politics influencing the content of print media, which you connected, I think very rightly to the expanding capitalist marketplace. What is it Michael Jordan said? ‘Republicans buy sneakers too.’ And yet, there is, in today’s media – though I think more in radio and television than in print media – a partisan divide amongst different media members and platforms. I’m wondering how partisanship in the media evolves from the story you’re telling, and second of all – and I’m begging the question slightly in that I have one nudge at an answer – if we accept that there is less information for the media report, then that implies perhaps a distrust of the state. Is the media, perhaps for some Americans, filling that authoritative void? If you can’t trust what the state is saying, or if the state isn’t releasing sufficient information, does the media then take its place as the arbiter of ‘fact’ for people.
Lebovic: That’s interesting. The question about the rise of partisanship is a difficult one. I think structures of media information play into it, but I’m not entirely sure to what extent. I want to say because I wrote a book on press freedom that press freedom solves all the other problems, and if we had a better vision of how the media was operating we wouldn’t have the problems of partisanship today. But a lot of those problems have to do with social sorting and the behavior of elected officials who have acted in an increasingly partisan fashion: gerrymandering of districts, highly partisan, distrustful of the mainstream media. My sense for the media part of this is that we’ve been at a change-over period for a couple of decades where the central mass broke apart, giving you a proliferation of channels through which people can express their opinions, but that happened at the same time that it undermined the economic basis of journalism. What you get is a proliferation of expression, and not a lot of reporting, and I think that contributes to the sense that all the news is biased. So, why not pick the one that aligns most closely to how you view the world?
The real mystery, and I don’t think we’ve got a very good accounting for it, is that it’s pretty clear that the mainstream press through the second half of the twentieth century was fairly centrist – it hung fairly close to power, which makes sense for a mainstream press. In the first half of the twentieth century, in fact, most people were convinced that the press was too conservative, and that newspaper publishers were on the side of Republicans, and that the press was biased against labor and the New Deal. Starting in the 1960s, that completely switched - all of the populist critique of the press comes from the right. Whatever’s behind that switch, I don’t think we have a particularly good story to explain it. There’s been some work that suggests it’s a result of the civil rights movement, when the New York Times begins to send journalists to the South. I think that’s clearly a contributing factor, but there’s something going on there that is not distinct from the broader dynamics of American politics – that the populist critique comes from the right and not the left at the end of the twentieth century is something that needs explaining, and that I don’t have a full answer for.
McNamara: Another piece of this – what are the connections between the rise of embedded or sponsored content in the media, and the story you tell, and also concerns over press freedom?
Lebovic: That one is simply a case of the economic collapse of the newspaper industry, particularly owing to the rise of the internet, during which ad revenues slump. That had been the only thing that had propped up newspapers – their monopoly position in the advertising market. The loss of this monopoly created a double problem for newspapers: they needed to cut reporting costs, and the number of reporters in the nation fell something like forty percent in a not-very-long period in the early 2000s, but they also needed to produce content without journalists to do it. That produces a lot of re-writing of corporate handouts, or government handouts, or puff pieces for a lot of newspapers. The second thing you need to do is find a way to bring advertising revenue back, and sponsored content is a way to kill two birds with one stone. It’s content that will fill the news hole, but it’s also paid for, so it’s a revenue stream. This is a major problem. If we care about a free press that is independent, that has a certain quality and accuracy of information within it, then people buying news coverage and deliberately masking it is a foundational challenge. At present, this is particularly a challenge for smaller local and community newspapers.
McNamara: Another question in thinking about what’s going on at present. In the book, you discuss attempts both by the government and the media itself to regulate the industry, and you conclude, it seems to me, that Americans view the media as distinct. There is something special about being a journalist that defies categorization as just having any other sort of job. In Germany, Dr. Goedde was saying to me recently, a lot of reporters at Der Spiegel have PhDs. What I’m wondering is: what is the threshold to being a journalist today, in the United States, as you see it? What makes someone a member of the press to Americans?
Lebovic: To Americans, there’s no limit, and that is deliberate. There were debates in the 1920s and 1930s about professionalizing journalism, just like you would doctors or lawyers, by requiring either some sort of formal schooling in a journalism school, which flourished during those years, or in many cases requiring – or at least there were proposals to require – the passage of an exam, or licensing. Those are also debated in the 1940s at the United Nations, whether foreign correspondents should be accredited and whether there should be an international board of journalists, which can remove cards if people report in an inappropriate or unprofessional fashion. Those proposals were all defeated, having been seen – I think fairly – as interfering with press freedom. You don’t want any centralized authority deciding who is and who isn’t a member of the press. In practice, I don’t think that stuff matters so much anymore. Where that would matter would be in issues like access to a press briefing, and there even at places like the White House, the bar is being set fairly low, to allow bloggers to get accredited. The important distinction, I think, is about who is and who isn’t a journalist, but rather what sort of journalism we should care about as members of the public. There, I think there’s a lot of loose thinking. A lot of what we value in journalism is commentary. That’s what’s profitable, that’s what’s cheap, that’s what’s fun to read, and there’s less respect in terms of either public attention, readership, or funding, for journalism that produces new information. You can call that investigative journalism, or whatever you want, but there seems to me to be a distinction in the particular role that’s being performed that’s been eroded. It would be nice to support that type of journalism, not by policing who can call themselves a journalist, but by providing funding and institutional support for real reporting.
McNamara: Here is my last question, which is deliberately provocative, I hope. You have this history that I think is compelling and your detailing of the rise of a laissez-faire definition of free speech and coincident restrictions to information by the state tells a great story. I guess, though: is the world we live in now, a world that some are calling a ‘post-truth’ era – is that the logical conclusion of a world where free speech is a negative rather than a positive liberty? One of the things you do well in the book is that you sketch out counter-factuals and other contingencies. Are there other ways that this could have turned out, or is the media world that we’re in right now the argument of your book taken to its extreme, extreme conclusion?
Lebovic: I think it is – not the necessary outcome of prioritizing a negative right to free speech, because part of what the book argues and what I believe is that a very well-protected right to free speech in the negative sense is essential to democratic discourse and dialogue, but that it’s insufficient. So if you only protect that, and think you have a truly free and democratic press, and don’t pay attention to these other problems, like the rise of government secrecy, like the corporate consolidation of the newspaper industry, like the decline of reporting , I think what you’re going to get is a politics that is all about expression. That is all about trying to say the most appealing or the most outrageous thing, or about trying to get the critique of the other side just right, as if that’s all that politics is. There’s a sort of unreality to American politics in its reality show phase, where it seems that all Trump has to do is say the right thing or the wrong thing, and that all the opposition to Trump wants to do is point out that he’s said the wrong thing, and that a lot of real concerns slide by-the-by. The impact of policy and how it’s playing out, as opposed to how it’s being branded, is ignored. I think a lot of that can be traced to a large extent, though not entirely, to the development of a very limited vision of what a free press should look like in a democracy. So the hope is that if we’d taken different steps in the past, we’d have produced a more vibrant political discourse that might have arrested some of the trends that we’ve seen.
McNamara: Those are all the questions that I have. Thank you again so much for doing this! We’re looking forward to your upcoming talk.