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Aug. 8, 2013, 2 p.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age” by Lawrence K. Grossman (1995)

“The future world of high resolution, interactive and digital transmissions will soon be here, permitting viewers ‘to order, access, store, and manipulate video, when and where they want it.'”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age by Lawrence K. Grossman

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The Electronic Republic sets out to take a broad look at the changing relationship between media and politics. It was written by Lawrence K. Grossman after he stepped down from his position as president of NBC in 1988. After a stint at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, where Grossman says he started to think about the way technology was changing the nature of American democracy, he became a professor at Columbia.

Grossman splits his exploration of “democracy in the information age” into two halves. The first looks at the death of the old democracy, while the second explores what Grossman calls the dawn of the “electronic republic.” This is a vision for a direct democracy in which advancing communication technologies — including “television, faxes, on-line communications and other instant media”  — allow citizens to play a much more active role in their government than simply voting. Grossman’s allusions to voter participation in legislation calls to mind the White House’s much discussed online petition forum, We the People.

The book is also prescriptive in its final chapters. Grossman offers suggestions for media reform that give primacy to the First Amendment, making him an early participant in the never-ending debate over what makes a journalist, who is and isn’t worthy of protection. After surveying the historical relationship between the press and the government, Grossman argues that new media will be more easily threatened by censorship, and encourages the reader to therefore fight all the harder to protect it.

Trying to make sense of how the First Amendment should work in the future, especially during a time of radical change in communications technology, is daunting, but so is trying to understand the at-times mysterious and often contradictory ways of First Amendment doctrine during the past two hundred years.

Telecommunications technology alone has expanded to the point where, as we have seen, video today can be delivered in a variety of ways: videocassette recordings, and discs, over the air television through broadcast stations, cable television, telephone line transmission, direct broadcast satellite, wireless cable, and computers (CD-ROM). The future world of high resolution, interactive and digital transmissions will soon be here, permitting viewers “to order, access, store, and manipulate video, when and where they want it.”

My own conviction is that the more complicated and diverse communications technology becomes, the simpler and more unambiguous our First Amendment protection should be. The electronic republic will best be served in the twenty-first century by returning to the late eighteenth century approach to the press that was specified in the Bill of Rights. Its content should be entirely free from “abridgment” by government. In that respect, tomorrow’s telecommunications media should joy the same freedom of as yesterday’s print press. That freedom should hold no matter what form its content may take: whether print, sound, film, or tape; whether the message appears on television, computer, or movie screen or is delivered via satellite, transmitter, microwave, cable, phone, fax, printing press or soapbox.

Although written long before the advent of what we now know as mass media and certainly long before the arrival of personal telecommunications media, the First Amendment’s centuries-old language, taken literally, should be the beacon for the future. The following principles should sharp the nation’s approach to free speech and a free press during the transformation to the electronic republic, no matter how the telecommunications environment may evolve.

  • The First Amendment should apply to all media equally. The consent of all media should be equally free from government intrusion
  • No prior restraint should be placed on any medium, no matter what its format
  • No restrictions should be imposed on who may publish or transmit information
  • The maximum possible diversity of media ownership and control should be sought
  • There must be universal access to the emerging transmission networks; a public sphere should be reserved for all citizens for civic information, discussion, debate and decision making
  • There must be a free, independent, and properly financed system of public telecommunications; that system, I believe, should be supported at least in part by fees from commercial telecommunications service providers and spectrum auctions
POSTED     Aug. 8, 2013, 2 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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