Wednesday, July 27, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined Freedom of the Press by Stephen Bates

An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined Freedom of the Press by Stephen Bates — THIS BOOK IS NOT DULL!!!!

I know that’s hard to believe, given the title. It’s not a book I ever would have picked up to read if not for a recent flicker of curiosity about Robert M. and Maude Hutchins. I thought I’d only read the relevant chapters, but I got sucked in.

Way back in the early 1940s, the owner of Time (the extremely successful publishing company), Henry Luce, and the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins (oddly enough, something of a celebrity in those days), decided to form a commission, funded by Luce and chaired by Hutchins, that would explore the issue of freedom of the press. Interesting?

The background (civil unrest, partisanship, consolidation of media firms with loss of smaller newspapers and increasing news monopolies, distrust of media, distrust of government, world-wide rise of fascism) were all on the rise and the media seemed to be doing more harm than good. An informed electorate was (and is) necessary for a functioning democracy, but…FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS!  What is the responsibility of the press and how can a responsible press be ensured without infringing on its freedom?

The parallels between the 1940s and today are striking, and things are much worse today. So what does the book suggest? What did the Commission on the Freedom of the Press suggest in their final report, published in 1947: A Free and Responsible Press? Not much. Niebuhr’s conclusion that the problems are insoluble seems spot on. Nevertheless, the committee’s study is fascinating, if not for its conclusions, then for its attempts at solutions.. This is a rare instance of it being delightful to see the sausage being made.

There were twelve committee members (all elite white male intellectuals, most of them professors with no journalists included) and a few researchers/administrative helpers, including a single female researcher. This sounds appalling, and is appalling, but it was the 1940s. Funded by a grant from Luce, these men would meet a few times a year (over 2 ½ years) in New York or Chicago, in expensive hotels, eating elaborate meals, and discussing First Amendment issues without a clear roadmap of what their goals were. One can well imagine these were men enamored of their own opinions who loved to hear themselves talk. Little wonder they got so little done. That was pretty much the contemporary conclusion. However, the report underwent a revival and is now taught in journalism schools and referred to when First Amendment issues arise. It was and is an important study.

But that’s not why this book is so entertaining. The committeemen, for all their faults, were smart, smart men. The arguments and their musings, are interesting. And several of them were bitingly funny and sarcastic. Their commentary on the proceedings and their sly insults had me snickering out loud. I read the book from cover to cover. 

It’s an odd recommendation coming from me given my usual interests, but I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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