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  Print view: Prof. Craig LaMay: All free speech systems are works in progress

Prof. Craig LaMay: All free speech systems are works in progress

Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
Tuessday, 15 February 2011
I favor the written word, which is infinitely better at explanation, detail, complexity and nuance than TV or radio.

Craig LaMay is an associate professor of journalism at the Northwestern University. He is a former editorial director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center and editor of Media Studies Journal; and a former newspaper reporter. LaMay’s articles and commentaries have appeared on New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Newsweek, Communication and the Law and a number of other media outlets.

LaMay has published several books on journalism and mass media of which we can name Journalism and the Problem of Privacy (2003), Commercial Transformation of the Nonprofit Sector, with Burton Weisbrod (1998) and Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment with Newton Minow (1995).

Prof. LaMay joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss the constraints of journalism in the United States, freedom of speech in the EU, the performance of local magazines as opposed to the national news outlets and the gradual disappearance of traditional media with the emergence of new internet-based technologies.

What follows is the complete text of my interview with Prof. Craig LaMay of the Northwestern University.

Kourosh Ziabari: Dear Craig; there’s a belief with regards to the mass media in the Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, which is undisputedly accepted by the international community: the widely-accepted belief is that the Western media are unrestrictedly free to publish whatever they want, to publish the viewpoints of the opponents of the government, the political dissidents and anti-governmental activists, without being harassed. Is it true that the mass media in the West are absolutely free to publish whatever they want? Isn’t there any implicit pressure on the media to publish the news and analysis in a way which is favorable to the interests of the government?

Craig LaMay, professor of journalism at the Northwestern University
Craig LaMay, professor of journalism at the Northwestern University

Craig LaMay: That belief is overstated. In the United States, for example, it has always been the law that restraints on publication, gag orders, are facially unconstitutional, and where they occur they get an immediate judicial review. Nonetheless, it is also the law that some materials are subject to what we call prior restraints, or injunctions against publication. Those materials fall into three broad categories: obscenity (which is subject to community standards, and thus what is ‘obscene’ in Alabama might not be so in New York); incitements to violence, but only when violence is likely and imminent, not when speech is mere advocacy, even advocacy that the government be overthrown by force; and risks to national security. The last of these is the most contentious for journalists, since even benign governments are apt to see national security threats where there are none.

In Western Europe, there is no rule against prior restraints even if the principle against them is generally accepted. So information that is libelous or invasive of privacy can be enjoined before publication. Particularly notable is the high regard that EU law, and many national laws, have for personal privacy, not only for private citizens but also for celebrities and public officials.

As for implicit pressure, there’s another matter. In any media system — ours or yours — it is much more that state control that determines what is published. So do social norms (ie, ethics, or cultural judgments about propriety and personal dignity); markets (ie, the decision about the costs of gathering and publishing some stories that might be hugely expensive to report in terms of personnel and legal costs, of interest to only a few people, the possibility that if a piece offends readers it might lead to loss of subscription, revenue, etc.); and last of all system architecture (ie, how you actually build your system to support free speech, eg, the Internet as a platform that anyone can use as opposed to a television station, where prerogatives belong to the owners). As you can imagine, each of these is linked to the other — none works entirely independent of the other.

KZ: In the majority of European countries, there are laws which restrict the publication of materials, articles, news and op-eds about Holocaust. Much of the journalists and academicians who publish materials which dispute the veracity of Holocaust get incarcerated immediately and have their respective media outlets banned or penalized with punitive measures. Isn’t this a violation of freedom of press and information on behalf of those who introduce themselves as the pioneers of freedom of speech?

CL: Interesting question. From the American point of view, the answer would be yes. But law is never abstract; it is always born of experience. The natural state of Europe for the last thousand years has been war, under Charlemagne, then Napoleon, then Hitler. The core purpose of the EU is to prevent future conflict, and in that system, and given the European experience with hate speech, it is hardly surprising that nation states from France to Austria would ban speech directed at certain minority populations. I get that. BUT, this does not explain the virulent anti-immigrant and racist speech you find all over Europe at any football game, for example, but also in public discourse. Sarkozy’s expulsion of the Roma last fall was the largest mass expulsion in Europe since the Holocaust, and yet it seemed to trouble few Europeans. The rise of anti-immigrant parties all over Europe is also a concern. So the problem the Europeans have, it seems to me, is that they have chosen to ban some hate speech directed at some minorities, but not all. I would say, however, that ALL free speech systems, including the United States’, are works in progress. The ideal of Europe regarding speech is contained in Article 10 of the EDHR, but it is far from realized.

I have to say also, as someone who has worked in developing media systems and post-conflict societies for many years — from Guatemala and Indonesia to Serbia and Chile — that it both unrealistic and chauvinistic to assume that every media system should look like, say, ours. It shouldn’t. The British system is very different from ours, for instance, and in ways works better than ours. And vice versa.

KZ: What’s in your view, the main difference between the local newspapers and magazines, with the national/international media outlets? Aside from the extent and area of their coverage which varies from the local media to the national and international media, what are the major differences in the mechanisms of performance, distribution of facilities and approaches to the current affairs in these media?

CL: The main difference I think is economic and have to do with audiences. Local media are often hyper-local, since that’s what people want to know about — their own neighborhoods, not the goings on in Washington or Tehran. And people consume much more local than national media. Our national media run the gamut from very good (eg, the NYTimes) to very bad (FOX News), but the difference there is, to me, economic. Each of those two media serve a small but well-paying audience. That market is only so big, and at the local level it is often too small to sustain anything of quality.

KZ: What are the main features and qualities of being a journalist in the United States? How should one’s performance be so as to keep up with the stream of professional journalism and avoid falling behind in contest with the other journalists? You have the experience of writing for several newspapers which are consider to be belonging to the category of “mainstream media”. What standards does a journalist need in order to secure a berth in such mediums? Do mainstream media investigate the journalists ideologically in order to hire them for cooperation?

CL: The qualities one needs depend, I think, on the work one does. Many “prominent” journalists in the US, for example, have never spent a day in journalism school. Many also have poor reporting skills and poor ethics, too, though many are also exemplary. If your primary business is entertainment (FOX News), then reporting skills matter much less than personality does. If your business is highly specialized information with high market value (financial news perhaps), then you need research skills and real knowledge about your field. Assuming one is serious about news, however, the skills one needs today now include a host of production skills we did not used to worry about. So, for example, if you’re in Cairo right now it’s not enough to send back written copy. You need to be able to shoot and edit your own video, gather and edit audio, write for the Web and the newspaper, and to a TV stand-up from the hotel lobby. You need, in other words, to have at least the skills of the so-called “citizen journalist” with his cell phone and twitter account.

I personally believe — and here I am at odds with the tradition of US journalism — some real knowledge of history, economics, natural and physical sciences. It is shameful that so many of our national media in Egypt right now are there to interview not Egyptians, but other Americans and Westerners. It’s because most reporters there know little or nothing of 20th-century Egyptian history or that of the region, except in the most sketchy ways. You see the same thing in coverage of, say, global warming, where reporters — in the name of being objective — think it’s okay to know nothing about the actual science of their subject. This is unprofessional and irresponsible, it seems to me, but it is very, very common.

What’s in your view the main responsibility of a professional journalist? What qualities and characteristics make a professional, responsible, committed and reliable journalist?

This is a question for the ages, so I’ll give you a short answer. The responsibility of the professional journalist is much the same as that of the professional scholar: to give evidence. It is never to think that because something is possible it is either plausible or probable. It requires one to investigate, to be self-consciously open to other points of view, to study one’s subject.

And on the ethics side — it is to remember above all that free speech has a cost (as, in economic theory all “free” things do; if something is free that means its cost has been shifted to someone else). In journalism, the cost of free speech can be born by someone else who is publicly humiliated or ruined, a community harmed, a country undone. To me, ethics means remembering that God does not think I’m special, and I could be completely wrong and should be humble in case I am.

KZ: When we look at the list of the world newspapers by circulation, we find that Japan has occupied the first five ranks. What does this fact signify? What qualities do the Japanese newspapers have that have made them so powerful and influential?

CL: Some cultures are well known as ‘reading’ cultures and others as ‘visual’ ones. Americans get most of their news from TV, for instance. The Japanese are a reading people. It is also true that Japanese media post-WWII were developed as mostly national media, designed to serve the entire nation.

KZ: If you were to analyze and investigate the problems of newspapers and media outlets in the developing world, what main points would you have identified? Why don’t the people in these countries have an inclination and appetite for reading the newspapers and magazines?

CL: In the developing world the problems are many. One is the lack of civil society organizations, particularly in post-conflict or post-authoritarian states, where civil society was largely stamped out. A second is that these countries often have media laws left over from the old authoritarian or colonial regime, and those laws tend to be oppressive. A third is that these countries often have large and dominant state media sectors — in TV and print — and they essentially take over the market for advertising and other revenues, making it all but impossible for private media to sustain themselves. A fourth is that many developing countries are poor, and poor people aren’t going to spend money on newspapers that they need for bread. A fifth is that many developing countries have high illiteracy rates, and so TV and radio are much more important than print. This is the case over much of Latin America and Africa, for example.

There is a well-known economic principle called “rational ignorance.” It says that rational people in functioning markets do NOT, as much as we might think they should, consume public-affairs news and information. They would rather be entertained. And that’s because they know, or think they do, that their participation in electoral politics will make little difference to the outcome of an election. And so it is more efficient (rational) for them to spend their time and money doing other things than becoming well informed citizens. Obviously if large numbers of people reach this conclusion, democracy can become hollow and dysfunctional. As it often is.

KZ: Which is more powerful; the written media such as newspapers and magazines or the audiovisual media such as TV channels and radio stations? What’s your estimation of the rivalry between the newspapers and magazines with the audiovisual media outlets? Who will be the winner? Which factors make one more privileged than the other?

CL: I have no particular insights on the future. I am biased, too, and favor the written word, which is infinitely better at explanation, detail, complexity and nuance than TV or radio. So I naturally think serious people are print people. At the same time, radio is the world’s most ubiquitous and popular medium, and I get most of my daily news that way. It goes places where print cannot or does not (eg, rural and far-flung parts of a country). TV is the last survivor of the digital revolution — Americans still spend 5 hours a day watching one, more time than they spend with any other medium, including the Internet. As for “privilege” in media, that is often a matter of system architecture and law. The West European countries, for example, hold on vigorously to their large public broadcasting systems (eg, the BBC), which are supposed to serve specific public interests, and provide specific public goods, that private media will not. I think that’s a good thing. So I don’t imagine that there will be one winner.

KZ: Will the emergence of new media outlets, including blogs, social networking websites and electronic magazines endanger the life of the traditional media? Will the people put the newspapers and magazines aside at some point?

CL: Clearly they already have, mostly by further dividing audiences and, more important, undermining or destroying the financial foundations of old media. US newspapers, for example, used to get most of their revenues from classified advertisements , but lost all of that advertising long ago to the Web, to which they have also lost readers and other forms of advertising. It is also the case that for many serious subjects — military affairs, the environment, international law and politics, health care, trade and commerce — I can and do get my best information from blogs, not TV or newspapers. I imagine you do, too. That said, my favorite regular media are traditional — a magazine and public radio.

I hope, for your sake and mine, that there will always be a place for honest inquiry and serious discussion, and above all for understanding. For that, you need journalists who are humanists, not mere technicians, not mere businessmen. When I work overseas I am always impressed by how little I know, how much I need to understand. I think, I hope, that makes me a better journalist, a better person.

Kourosh Ziabari

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian media correspondent, freelance journalist and interviewer. He is a contributing writer of Finland’s Award-winning Ovi Magazine and the the Foreign Policy Journal. He is a member of Tlaxcala Translators Network for Linguistic Diversity (Spain). He is also a member of World Student Community for Sustainable Development (WSC-SD). Kourosh Ziabari's articles have appeared in a number of Canadian, Belgian, Italian, French and German websites. He can be reached at

Mr. Ziabari's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on February 15, 2011.


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