Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Orville Schell on Information Democracy

Information, News, and the Survival of Democracy in America
(First published in November 2008, updated August, 2014)

August 2014:

Tablet Magazine headline 2014
As the struggle for survival continues in the Middle East, American news outlets struggle to survive the economic realities of modern era information technologies.

Now, some say, even the venerable New York Times has "lowered" itself to advocacy journalism. Is the Times merely saying it like it is in documenting one of the longest running international feuds? Or, is the Times taking an editorial stand and telling it as they see it?

In either case, the tide continues to turn in the high stakes media world and, I believe, the people (and Democracy) are losing.

James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers "to the people of the State of New York" that:
Ignorance will be the dupe of cunning, and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation. The people can never err more than in supposing that by multiplying their representatives beyond a certain limit, they strengthen the barrier against the government of a few. Experience will forever admonish them that, on the contrary, AFTER SECURING A SUFFICIENT NUMBER FOR THE PURPOSES OF SAFETY, OF LOCAL INFORMATION, AND OF DIFFUSIVE SYMPATHY WITH THE WHOLE SOCIETY, they will counteract their own views by every addition to their representatives. The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. 
Madison mentions the importance of "local information." A knowledgeable electorate is important to the success of democracy. He is also talking about direct control of the states (or the country) by representatives of the government. This argument is consistent with the way the Federalist Papers spoke about the importance of having an informed electorate to protect against the potential tyranny of government. Information can help keep the people free. Ignorant people will be duped.

November 2008:

In the short clip from his talk in 2008, Orville Schell explains how the founders of the United States believed that the success of Democracy depends on an informed population. In the days of the creation of the country and the writing of the Constitution that information would be received through reading newspapers.

Schell asks whether or not Democracy can survive after the demise of newspapers and even television news as we know it today. Does the Internet provide the same range of voices and information we need to be well informed? Are we informed as we should be as a people in this country and if not, what might be the consequences of this new reality? Does Democracy really exist anymore?

Orville Schell speaking at the Marin Academy, 
Conference on Democracy in October 2008