The separation of business and news is only about 100 years old. In 1800 the most common name for an American newspaper was The Advertiser. Take that literally. Not advertising in the sense of the purchase of space, but the purpose of the newspaper was to advertise, to spread the wares and interests of commerce and industry; that is, to publish prices, quantities, availability, to bring news about the structures of markets. Every paper was, in a way, The Wall Street Journal. And the relationship between business and journalism was an intimate one.

Later, when we entered the day of partisan journalism, there was no conflict between the business office and the news operation. They were joined. Crudely put, newspapers sold ideology; business success and political success were linked through patronage and subsidy. The access to a market and the source of one’s subsidy defined the nature of news and reporting. But once the press in the late 19th Century declared its independence from political parties and other institutions, it also had to declare independence from its own business office and from the institutions of commerce. As a result, we have been peculiarly blessed in the United States: Organs of journalism have generally been owned by journalistic companies that honored the divorce of commerce and journalism….

The independence of news from business which has persisted in significant ways up to now was reflected in an iron wall of separation in the newsroom. One of the peculiar facts about the charter of the Columbia School of Journalism is that Joseph Pulitzer, a businessman if there ever was one, wrote into the charter that we could not teach the business side of journalism for he thought it would corrupt us to do so….

If the separation of news from business is a relatively recent development that today is passing away, why should we mourn the passing any more than we mourn the passing of the partisan press which independent journalism replaced? Why does it matter?

The problem is that there is a new and ominous element in what is replacing it. Our understanding of journalism, both the partisan press and the independent press, has proceeded from the Enlightenment idea that the press is a basic institution of political liberty. Today the First Amendment is ceasing in the eyes of many to have the implication of a public trust held in the name of a wider community for the purpose of guaranteeing liberty. Increasingly, the First Amendment seems to refer simply to a property right, establishing ground rules for economic competition. And lest you think this hyperbolic, listen to the thoughts on this of Rupert Murdoch, one of the new barons of the conglomerates. He says, in referring to Asia, “Singapore is not liberal, but it’s clean and free of drug addicts. Not so long ago it was an impoverished, exploited colony with famines, diseases and other problems. Now people find themselves in three-room apartments with jobs and clean streets. Countries like Singapore are going the right way. Material incentives create business and the free market economy. If politicians try it the other way around, with democracy, the Russian model is the result. Ninety percent of the Chinese are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote.”

That is a new voice in American journalism, one that inverts the historic relationship of economic and political democracy. Political democracy does not follow axiomatically from the presence of an effective market economy. And a politically free press does not follow from an economically free one. Indeed, when economic values come to dominate politics, liberty is often at risk.

A society solely dominated by markets can be quite illiberal. As Murdoch attests, modern economic developments seem to favor authoritarian rather than democratic regimes. As Ralf Dahrendorf, former Director of the London School of Economics, reminds us, authoritarian does not mean totalitarian. For such regimes do not “require a Great Leader and a pervasive ideology,” nor a permanent mobilization. These are countries that can be quite nice for the visitor, predictable and undemanding for the natives, but for poets and journalists, “they are unbearable.”

What has been added to the mix is a new experiment, particularly in those great Asian markets relatively untapped by the West, which can be put as a question: Can you have free markets without political democracy? The concern that follows the erasure of the walls between journalism and business is this question precisely. Can the historic meetings of political liberty and a free press be preserved once that wall is effectively breached?

In the late 1930’s, Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter, an ardent lover of capitalism, wrote that he feared for capitalism’s future because of what he called its process of creative destruction. Capitalism was such an innovative economic system, he thought, that it tended to destroy all things, including the social and political bases that guarantee it, foremost among which are the institutions of democracy.

As the age of modern, independent journalism comes to an end, the new relation between news and business will establish a model for how political and economic liberty are combined in the culture at large. This is crucial not only for a free press but for democracy and social justice. For freedom must mean something more than freedom from government. The issue today is whether the values of the First Amendment generate political liberty that news organizations have an obligation to sustain or merely protect the rights of corporate organizations to sustain themselves.

Jim Carey is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This essay is based on remarks made at a forum held at Harvard University and sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Harvard on May 22, 1998.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment