In his final chapter, James Fallows introduces the argument between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey that took place through their writings in the 1920’s regarding what constituted the most desirable form of representative government. I would like to read more of their original writing, but for now let me react to what Fallows has covered.
Lippmann argued that the world was too large and complex to allow for an expectation that the common citizen could be sufficiently informed to make wise decisions on many policy issues. Government, with it’s ability to draw upon the knowledge of experts should therefore have a relatively free hand in creating the policies that would best serve the nation. The extension to this attitude was that the journalist was expected to play the role of expert in explaining the expert government actions to the people.
Dewey argued that without a healthy democratic process no government could be expected to consistently make wise choices for the nation, no matter how much expert information they had available to them. The implications of this would be that the journalist should play the role of examiner and fact finder (as should the elected official), but that the decision should generally play out in the court of public opinion.
The arguments of Lippmann certainly are accurate in describing the complexity of the world – a world that is even more complex when it is not tempered by the moderating influence of broad democratic participation based on broadly disseminated information. However, my own biases have me leaning in favor of the perspective of Dewey that the very process of public democracy has benefits which we cannot afford to set aside.
Journalists have a special role in society in that they have the opportunity to study an issue and dig beneath the surface to examine the realities that escape the surface understanding of that issue. I believe the real problem lies in cases where a journalist, acting as an expert, not only tells their readers what they believe, but fails to report facts contrary to their own beliefs thus preventing the consumers from making an informed choice.
Does anyone else know more about Dewey or Lippmann?