Private Threats to Free Expression

by George Gerbner

Dr. George Gerbner, for many years Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the nation’s most highly respected media scholars.

Prepared for presentation at the John Peter Zenger Symposium on Friday, October 25, 1985, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


Television is taking over the traditional role of teacher and preacher in our culture, while at the same time becoming controlled by a few who limit the points of view. We need to extend First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion to the broadcast media.

The usual litany of private threats fills the law journals, trade papers, and recent books concerned with free expression. They include the "chilling effects" of libel suits, the perennial conflicts between property and access, the three out of four publishers who intervene in news decisions affecting their local markets, the advertisers’ freedom to move their money to where their interests are, industry self-regulation in broadcasting and advertising, the backlash against conveying under duress (as in a hostage crisis) points of view that are never aired as directly without duress, the flareups of book banning and censorship of textbooks, the rout of the civil rights movement, the retreat from principles of fairness and equality (even where never implemented), the attack on scientific and humane teaching, the threat of self-appointed media watchdogs to also spy on teachers in the classroom, and the general vigor of ancient orthodoxies masquarading as neo-this and neo-that.

In fact, none of this is all that "neo." What is, however, of a different order of magnitude is the convergence of technological, institutional, political, and cultural currents, historic bases on which assumptions about religion, speech, press, and self-government are based. The tide washes over familiar labels, shifts political landmarks, blurs traditional distinctions, and stirs up the old melting pot. There is a change in our culture that challenges our theories, let alone the practice, of access and free expression. The mainstream of that tidal wave is television.

The historic nexus of power, state and church, gave way to the symbiotic relationship of state and television. The Founding Fathers could not foresee the rise of a media establishment, a virtual private Ministry of’ Culture with government-licensed broadcasting at its center, functioning as the Religion they forbade Congress to establish. My thesis is that in licensing broadcasters and then letting the marketplace take its course, Congress has made law respecting the establishment of the modern equivalent of religion and has, in effect, transferred the right to abridge freedom of speech and press from Public to Private government.

Now let me back up and reflect on the myth of the marketplace of ideas, trace the role of the press in political theory, and focus on trends toward concentration that set the stage for a communication perspective on our current predicament.

"There are no free markets, only markets controlled by capitalists, kings, communists or pirates, for markets are complex human organizations which cannot exist without order, hierarchy, power, and control." Freedom is the invention of outlaws, rebels, pornographers, and others who challenge that order, hierarchy, and control. They are more likely to be a nuisance or menace than popular commodities to be traded on demand. Their value for the survival of self-government is not set by the laws of supply and demand.

The mechanisms that govern the mass media marketplace are those of property and money. They include high technology, high capital investment needed to enter, high political as well as economic stakes, reliance on corporate sponsors, and relative insulation f ran public or consumer participation in policy-making. These generate the dynamics of concentration and conglomeration that tend toward the creation of an electronically-based global media empire. New communication technologies, far I ran eroding the reach of the old, sharpen the aim and deepen the penetration of telecommunications culture-power into new areas, including those now served (often less efficiently) by print. The combination of government licensing and market mechanisms may actually be more effective (and certainly less visible) cultivating ideological homogeneity and deflecting serious challenge than would be laws more publicly enacted.

Rulers always define freedom as what they do. Control of communications is necessary for some freedom of action of any establishment. Censorship is the rule, not the exception, in all societies. Liberal democratic theory counters that with the necessities of self-government in a society of conflicting interests. Application of that theory is difficult, often painful, and always incomplete. It requires acceptance of the subversive challenge, the occasional disruption, the periodic and unpleasant but vital shock of recognition that things change faster than myths and must be reckoned with. The First Amendment permits such dynamics of social survival but does not secure it. In fact, in its current interpretations, it provides a shield for the mechanisms of its evasion. Realistic strategies for securing, let alone extending, the rights envisaged by those who drafted the First Amendment, if possible at all, require freedom, first of all, from the myths and shiboleths that have obscured a full view of what we are up against.

Some conception of the role of the "press" has always been a central feature of modern political theory. A secular press of politics and commerce was instrumental to the rise of diverse mass publics independent of church and nobility. The press was (and is) a relatively specific and selectively used organ of the more literate of every class. Its hard-won freedom to express and advocate competing and conflicting ideologies and class, group, and political party interests was supposed to sustain the political diversity necessary for self-government in a complex society.

The decline of the party press and subsequently of political parties themselves as primary means of communication with voters limits the viability of the liberal theory of the press as a pluralistic ideological advocate. The rise to dominance of a single market-driven advertiser-sponsored and ideologically coherent press system, claiming to represent diverse publics, and invoking Constitutional protection of its freedom to virtually preempt the marketplace of ideas, further strains democratic political theory. Many studies document the trend toward media concentration. Two wire services, one in bankruptcy, supply most world and national. news. Chains dominate the daily and weekly press, with the top 10 controlling more than one-third of circulation. Only ~ percent of cities have competing newspapers. A strike can leave a city like Philadelphia without a daily paper for weeks. Magazines and books provide the most varied fare, but electronically-based conglomerates own the biggest publishing houses. Broadcasting is of course the most concentrated. The top 100 advertisers pay for two-thirds of all network television. Three networks, increasingly allied to other media production and distribution, control over 70 percent of the market. More importantly, they control most of the programming for all people. "The greatest threat to journalistic independence and integrity is not the Jesse Helmses," a network news executive was reported saying this week, "and it’s not the libel suit -- it’s red ink." Entertainment -- that universal source of information for those who seek no information -- is even more constrained. Some 50 weekly series are cancelled every year, many without a fair chance. Many programs and films are made but never aired. A handful of giant corporations, probably not much more than 40, manage the bulk of all. mass media output. With the current "merger mania," their numbers are shrinking and their reach is expanding every year. Labor, minorities, and other sources of potential diversity lose ground with every merger.

There is not much ground to lose. The high point of ideological ferment following Allied victory in World War II provoked furious reaction. No "free marketplace of ideas" prevented the use of loyalty oaths, witch hunts, and intimidation associated with the name of the late Senator McCarthy to "purge" unions, organizations, and media of radical and other unorthodox elements, ostensibly, as always, to save us from communism.

Early media casualties were the few independent daily newspapers that had survived the buffeting of the pre-war and war years, such as fl1 and the York, Pa. Gazette. Journals of opinion have always depended upon rich donors to keep them alive. Rising costs killed many and prevented new entries except for the orthodox foundation-supported variety. Some of’ the survivors also shifted into reverse with the changing political tides.

The civil rights and women’s movements broke the chill of the witch hunts and blacklists of the ‘fifties and provoked, in turn, the new virulence of fundamentalist and other orthodox attacks on minority rights, science, textbooks, education, and academic freedom in the ‘eighties. By now, however, the cultural mainstream itself has undergone a sea-change. To appreciate its magnitude, we shall take a brief tour of history from a communications perspective.

"If I were permitted to write all the ballads I need not care who makes the laws of the nation." Scotch patriot Andrew Fletcher said in 1704. He may have been the first to recognize that a centralized system of the legends, songs, stories, (what we call entertainment, as well what we call information) forms a compelling mythology reaching every home and confers power that kings, emperors, and popes could only dream about. Today television actually wields that power. How did this come about?

Humans interpret experience in symbolic contexts. The stories we tell, rather than the direct threats and gratifications of the moment animate the human imagination and define for us what exists, what is important, what is right, and what is related to what. Our arts, sciences, religions, laws, and politics are mainly stories we tell and internalize, or impose. The process weaves a seamless web of human cultures, erecting for each its own interpretations of reality, and guiding its social relations.

There are three basic types of stories performing different and often overlapping functions. They have been told in three basically different ways through history.

The first type are stories of how things work. Usually called fiction or drama or myth, they make the all-important but invisible structure of social relationships and the hidden dynamics of life visible and understandable.

Second are stories of what things are. These are the facts, the legends, the news selected to relate to social values and powers. They give credibility to each society’s fantasies of reality and alert it to threats and opportunities.

Third are stories of what to do. These are stories of value and choice. They present some behavior or style of life as desirable (or undesirable) and propose ways to attain (or avoid) it. These are sermons, instructions, laws, commercials. Different, of course, in complexity, authenticity, and authority, they essentially tell us what to do or not to do.

These three types of stories, or story functions, mingle in the process that weaves the fabric of culture. That is the symbolic environment in which humans grow, learn, and live like humans.

Until the invention of printing, all three types of stories were told face-to-face. A community was defined by geography and history and the rituals and mythologies held in common. Stories memorized and recited or read and interpreted from rare manuscripts united the tribe or community into a coherent structure with little need or opportunity for diversity, dissent, resistance, or rebellion.

Then comes printing. Printing represents the industrial revolution in culture, a prerequisite for all the other upheavals to come. Printing breaks up the ritual, challenges sacred interpretations, extends communities beyond previous boundaries of time and space. Printing ushered in the Reformation and with it religious plurality and the differentiation of consciousness reflecting competing and conflicting classes and other interests (all struggling for the right to tell stories from their own points of view) in the same society. Printing makes possible the rise of modern mass publics. These are loose aggregations of people who never meet face to face and yet have much in common through the stories they share. Publics are created through publication. Modern theories of public policy formation stem from the print era.

The latest transformation in story telling is the electronic. As print broke up the central mythology and ritual of the pre-industrial age, television short-circuits the selective potentials of previous media. It is watched relatively non-selectively, by the clock rather than the program. It is the central mass-ritual of the telecommunications age. It tells "all the ballads" Andrew Fletcher wrote about, to all the children, parents, and grandparents at the same time. For the first time in history, children are born into a symbolic environment, pervading the average home about 7 hours a day. It is no longer the parent, the school, nor the church but a distant corporation tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time. It brings to them the message and perspective of its sponsors to which there is no effective challenge.

We have studied that process for nearly two decades and found that television satisfies many previously felt religious needs for participating in a common ritual and sharing beliefs about the meaning of life and the modes of right conduct. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to suggest that the licensing of television represents the modern functional equivalent of an establishment of religion.

The essence of a centralized mass ritual like television is that it exposes far-flung and otherwise heterogeneous communities to the same system of story-telling. It pervades every home with a common message, and bypasses previous requirements of mobility and literacy. Our research has found that this tends to blur the traditional distinctions of sex. age, race, class and all minority interests, blend them into a more integrated perspectives, and bend them to central institutional interests.

The cultural tidal wave that is television alters viewers’ conceptions of reality, shifts political orientations, and-.- vocal claims to the contrary -- cultivates conformity and intolerance of differences. Its undertow tends to pull those divergent perspectives that remain into its mainstream. Such dissolution of authentic publics in a more homogeneous commonality of an audience of consumers challenges our theories of self-government.

Provisions that attempted to preserve fairness, plurality and public participation in broadcast policy crumble under the impact of a shift of controls to ever larger industrial combinations. This process is called deregulation and is justified by an appeal to the free marketplace. The trade paper Variety announced in its September 11, 1985 issue (p.45): "Diversity in the entertainment business, for decades the cornerstone of government policy and congressional oversight, seemingly has melted overnight into something akin to benign neglect."

I present a diagnosis and not a prescription. We have drifted into an historic dilemma from which there is no easy way out. Television is a mass and not a class act; the task is not to make it into an elite pastime. It is to begin the long process of public discussion about the resources, ideas, and actions needed to liberate this great medium from the constraints imposed on it by the mechanisms misnamed the free marketplace. The task is to extend the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion and abridgement of speech and press to private as well as public government.