A central concern in democratic theory of all stripes is how people can have the information, knowledge, and forums for communication and deb ate necessary to gove rn their own lives effectively. The solution to this problem is found, in theory, in systems of education and media.
But then the nature of the educational and media systems comes into focus as a crucial issue. If these systems are flawed and under-mine democratic values, it is awfully difficult to conceive of a viable democratic society. Therefore, public debates over education and media policy are central to debates over the nature of democracy in any given society. Today, for example, the United States is in the midst of a massive campaign by the political right to privatize education, effectively dismantling public education systems, making the system explicitly class-based, and subjecting education for the non-elite to commercial values. The antidemocratic implications of these developments can hardly be exaggerated.
The situation is even more severe for democratic values in media, though this receives far less attention in the official political culture. In particular, journalism is that product of the media system that deals directly with political education. Within democratic theory, there are two indispensable functions that journalism must serve in a self-governing society. First, the media system must provide a rigorous accounting of people in power and people who want to be in power, in both the public and private sector. This is known as the watchdog role. Second, the media system must provide reliable information and a wide range of informed opinions on the important social and political issues of the day. No single medium can or should be expected to provide all of this; but the media system as a whole should provide easy access to this for all citizens. Unless a society has a journalism that approaches these goals, it can scarcely be a self-governing society of political equals.
Winter 2000 / 2001
Vol. 15, No. 2