Freeing the Flow

President Lee C. Bollinger’s new book argues that the idea of a free and independent press - and Internet - should be our principal export.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Winter 2009-10
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Columbia: The Supreme Court justices over the past century must have had more faith in the individual than one would find at other times and places.

Bollinger: Their decisions definitely had to be rooted in a faith in people to take enormous differences in attitudes, desires, specific policies, and understandings of what makes a good life — and to live with great openness about disagreements and conflicts.

Columbia: That also implies a sophistication and intelligence among the members of the society to pick among ideas and arguments and determine which path to follow.

Bollinger: I think it clearly does that as well. If you believed that people generally would take ideas and go in the wrong direction again and again, then it would be hard to be committed to this kind of openness. Of course, always given the alternatives, there is a belief that not only is that the best among many worse or bad alternatives, but also that there is a kind of capacity or character we want to achieve.

“If we believe in freedom of the press and all that that means, we need to argue for it on a global scale.”

Columbia: When the Internet was new, were you surprised by how much nuttiness was out there? Beyond the Web sites simply driven by hatred, who would have imagined that there were so many conspiracy theories, each with competing sites? I assume that the Internet didn’t create these ideas, but that people with crazy ideas now have a great way to promote those ideas.

Bollinger: Your last point is an interesting one; we’ll have to see over time whether the Internet is not just a mirror of how people think, both good and bad, but a cause of it. If you’re steeped in First Amendment traditions, you are not at all surprised by the visibility of strange speakers. The Supreme Court cases typically do not present highly appealing characters offering reasoned arguments for their positions. Rather, the speakers are frequently offensive and worse. So, the Internet may simply reveal what we’ve already been seeing.

One of the things that I’ve looked at carefully over a long period of time is broadcast regulation and how it has appeared to be an anomaly within the system of freedom of expression. One thing that system reveals is that every time a new communication technology comes along, people get nervous. They are afraid that the technology is going to change the way people think and behave, and societies want to clamp down on it. I sense this happening now with the Internet, but of course we have to make some allowances for the fact that at some point the fears may be true. That they haven’t been true in the past doesn’t mean they won’t be true in the future.

Columbia: You write in your book that “at the moment when our technological capacities to communicate globally are greater than ever, when the interdependency of peoples around the globe is greater than ever, and when the need for news about international and global issues is greater than ever, the technology that facilitates this communication is simultaneously undermining the capacity of the American media institutions to meet their responsibilities to the public. America is at risk of intellectual isolationism, at least as grave a problem for the nation as economic protectionism.”

You quote figures about the rapid drop in the number of foreign correspondents for newspapers, television stations, and networks. It is ironic because I can now go to my computer and read Le Figaro, listen to Xinhua, or watch Al Arabiya. Of course the problem is that people don’t.

Illustrations by Keith NegleyBollinger: We see the admired institutions within the press, especially newspapers, suffering devastating blows to their financial viability and responding in ways that should lead us to be concerned under normal circumstances — but under current circumstances, we should be truly alarmed. A common response is to cut back on the coverage of news, especially international news, which is very expensive. Foreign bureaus are being closed at a startling pace and the number of foreign correspondents is declining. There is a strong cause-and-effect relationship between what is covered and what people are interested in. As you point out, I pose the proposition that at the very moment when we need more information and knowledge about the world, we’re getting far less.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it has broken down the monopoly position of major press organizations to channel information to the public. But it’s a myth to say that, although the major branches of the media are under serious threat financially and are reducing their news coverage, we shouldn’t be concerned because there are now other sources, such as bloggers, from which we can now get our news. Most people at the end of the day are going to turn to very few places to get their information. Time is limited, people’s attention is limited, and we should think carefully about how people will be able to understand our world with the communications structure that exists.

There is a powerful need for institutions we can trust. We need journalists with professional standards and judgment, in large organizations, dedicated to sorting through information and giving us reports whose accuracy we can test over time. The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of places you can go to get information is good, but it’s not going to serve the needs of creating a nation and a global society.

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