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  • From the Press to the Media
  • Gautam Adhikari (bio)

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was perhaps the first major political thinker to analyze what was at that time a new and developing phenomenon—the emergence of the press as a powerful instrument for democracy. Democracy itself was a relatively new development at that time, limited in its spread and depth. Freedom of the press had been enshrined in a written constitution for the first time only four decades before Tocqueville began his travels in the United States. Yet he recognized the vital importance of the press and devoted two key chapters to the subject in Democracy in America.

Despite speaking disdainfully of the “scanty education and . . . vulgar turn of mind” of American journalists, Tocqueville concluded in Chapter 11 of Volume I (“Liberty of the Press in the United States”) that the influence of the press in America was immense:

It causes political life to circulate through all the parts of that vast territory. Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion. It rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact

(I, 187–88).

And in Chapter 6 of Book II of Volume II (“Of the Relation Between Public Associations and the Newspapers”), he made an even stronger claim for the importance of the press: [End Page 56]

When men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought, but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs.

Newspapers, therefore, become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization

(II, 111).

Since Tocqueville’s time, the press has become even more central to democratic discourse worldwide, if not to the maintenance of civilization. But it is not the same press. In fact, it cannot even properly be called the “press” any longer, for it is better described by a broader collective noun: the media. Yet the existence or absence of freedom of the press still marks a critical point that distinguishes a freely functioning democracy from an authoritarian regime.

The quintessentially modern idea of a free press has been evolving for more than two centuries. This evolution has been punctuated by two redefining revolutions in communications technology. One revolution has already occurred, while the other, currently underway, is at most half-complete. In Tocqueville’s time, and for almost a century thereafter, the press consisted only of newspapers and periodicals. The first revolutionary change to take place was the emergence of radio and then television in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The advent of broadcasting dramatically extended the reach, influence, and scope of the media; the scale of media operations further increased from the 1980s onward through the use of global satellite communications and fiberoptics technology. Today, as we enter a new millennium, we are passing through the early phases of a second revolution in communications technology, a revolution almost certain to reshape society through the spreading use of personal computers and the Internet. It is still no more than half a revolution, because we do not know in what direction it will lead us. But only modern-day Luddites refuse to recognize the revolutionary nature of Internet technology...