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
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Columbia: You write that for the press to flourish, it cannot be composed of a multitude of isolated individuals, but that it must be an institution. What is the role of journalism schools, Columbia’s and others, in shoring up that institution?

Bollinger: Given the crisis, the role of journalism schools — and of a great journalism school like Columbia’s — should be to take those issues on. In October, Dean Nicholas Lemann, Professor Michael Schudson, and Leonard Downie, Jr., who is the retired editor of the Washington Post and a professor at Arizona State University, released a report confronting some of these issues. We have financial crisis in the press, it is leading to a decline in the coverage of local issues, so how can we develop policies and practices that will help alleviate these grave risks for American democracy? They focused on local news. This is precisely the kind of contribution a great professional school can make to the profession and to society. It’s getting a lot of attention, and we couldn’t be happier about that. (See the news story on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” page 35. — Ed.)

Columbia: You make the point that it was during the 20th century that the United States developed, codified, and embraced a national free press. In your book you express the hope that the 21st century will be the century in which the same will happen with the global press. What do you see as the New York Times v. Sullivan of the 21st century?

Bollinger: If we believe in freedom of the press and all that that means, we need to argue for it on a global scale. Because the rest of the world doesn’t entirely accept this belief, we need to engage with the world about the issue. In other words, the project of the 21st century is to develop, as much as possible, some kind of global understanding of a free press. The United States needs to make this a top national priority.

Recognizing we’re dealing with nation-states, it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to confront the issues of what kind of press principles we want on a global scale. This is not new. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dates back to the 1940s, has wonderful language dealing with freedom of expression.

We have to start with the realization that this is what the United States did on a national scale in the last century. We had laws that punished the press for publishing things that would embarrass the government or would bring the public to hold the government in disrepute. We had laws that protected the reputations of public officials and made citizens potentially liable for saying false things about them. We had laws that forbade the press from covering trials while trials were under way. We had laws that forbade the press from publishing state secrets. We looked at each of these and decided, “No, we’re not going to go that route.”

There are some exceptions, but essentially we said we’re going to have a different society than those laws would give us.

If you look at the rest of the world, you’ll find that most nations have more restrictive laws and about half have major censorship. Now, since we have reporters operating around the world — and should have more — and since what we publish here is now being read everyplace else, there already is a collision between the laws of other nations and the press. We have to look at our own experience, understand why we did what we did, and then figure out how to move in that direction in the global arena. The 20th century was in many ways a move from very local forums to a national forum as both the economy and communications technologies became national. Now that’s happening on a global scale.

It was a logical progression and one that I had not really focused on before sitting down to write this book. I was thrilled with the opportunity to think about it for the first time myself.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (77)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time