Opinon Matters, by Steven M. Hallock

Democratic societies are widely understood to promote human freedom through political equality – equality before the law and in choosing the lawmakers; and the main instruments of such political equality are voting, representation, and constitutional government. These are indeed basic features of the democratic engine, regardless of the specific design. But while necessary for self-government, they are not sufficient.

The fuel that makes a democratic engine run, and without which it is a mere blueprint, is information: the flow of facts, analyses, opinions, discussions and arguments that empower citizens for their central role in guiding the machine. Hence the importance of freedom of speech, and its crucial ancillary, freedom of the press. Journalism, and media in general, intertwine with the principles and strategies of democratic culture in many ways; democracy runs on conversation and communication. The quality of journalism bears directly on the quality of democracy itself.

Like journalism generally, the editorial page is many things to a community. As Steven M. Hallock observes, it is at once the “community watchdog, agenda-setter and conscience.” It is where a community (large or small) can converse with itself, expose arguments to criticism and facts to correction. In every way it is essential to – if not the very soul of – the democratic machine.

Professor Hallock probes beneath this basic democratic premise, exploring the state of opinion journalism in America. Combining the insights of scholarship with considerable journalistic experience, he examines the importance of a diverse and lively culture of opinion: not just a “market of ideas,” but also a “market basket,” i.e., the need for true competition and diversity, ideological and otherwise, in the democratic marketplace. In the process, he offers both rigorous analysis and a panoramic backdrop of the history of editorial opinion in America since the colonial era.

Sifting voluminous evidence, Hallock shows how the concentration of the American journalistic landscape has narrowed the range and depth of debate. The threat to democracy which he identifies is not remote or hypothetical. It is not something that might happen decades hence, if we do nothing. It is an actual and ongoing process of decay, reflected in, among other things, the paucity of local coverage, loss of local autonomy in public affairs, and the lack of a true “basket” of diverse voices and ideas.

This series is predicated on the idea that the state and quality of our democracy is inseparable from the state and quality of our news media. There are many ways of exploring the connections between the interlocking spheres of power and mediation, and of showing the necessity of informed citizenship for the proper functioning of the democratic machine. “Opinion Matters” identifies a critical nexus of those parallel and conjoined universes.

Professor Hallock extends the series into the realm of opinion with a cogent argument that the trend toward concentration and monopolization in the American media represents a triumph of market forces over market baskets, and a genuine limitation on the quality of our democracy. His conclusions and recommendations, echoing those of the Hutchins Commission sixty years ago, are both sensible and timely; and like the work of that sorely underestimated Commission, they also contain, in their adherence to enduring democratic values, elements of the timeless.

Series Foreword by Jeffrey Scheuer, Series Editor
September, 2006