An aristocracy of critics Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the committee that redefined freedom of the press

Stephen Bates, 1958-

Book - 2020

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Informational works
New Haven : Yale University Press [2020]
Main Author
Stephen Bates, 1958- (author)
Physical Description
viii, 312 pages, 10 unnumbered pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 225-295) and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. Skunk at the Garden Party
  • 2. Unlucky Crusader
  • 3. Disillusionment in Democracy
  • 4. Synthetic Dead Cats
  • 5. Highest Intellect Ever
  • 6. Restless Searchlights
  • 7. The Glorious, Mischievous First Amendment
  • 8. The Right to Be Let Alone
  • 9. Resurrecting Free Speech
  • 10. Is Bigness Badness?
  • 11. Gadgeteer
  • 12. Beguiling the Dragon
  • 13. Consider Yourself Pedestaled
  • 14. All Great Problems Are Insoluble
  • 15. Jefferson's Epitaph
  • 16. Gentleman's "C"
  • 17. The Luce That Laid the Golden Egg
  • 18. From Target to Canon
  • 19. Democracy on the Skids
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

World War II would seem to be an awkward moment to launch a philosophical discussion of the rights and responsibilities of a free press, but that is exactly what media magnate Henry Luce (1898--1967) proposed to University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins in December 1942. Funding a commission of notable intellectuals, Luce got more--and less--than he bargained for. Hutchins kept Luce at arm's length, meanwhile conducting a conversational symphony within the Commission on Freedom of the Press that at times produced coruscating insights and in other instances wound in circles. What else could one expect from a group so strong-willed and disparate in personality and perspective as the Hutchins Commission's participants (for an overview, readers may consult Bates (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) masterfully re-creates a dialogue spanning three years and 17 meetings, featuring 58 witnesses, 225 staff interviews, 176 documents, and a number of false starts. In the end, Hutchins rescued a faltering enterprise, palliating different objectors to one position or another. Commission members debated everything from information overload to the need for government oversight of the media. Treating readers as responsible citizens rather than simply buying machines, the Commission confronted issues that are especially pertinent today. This is a superb piece of scholarship. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and professionals. General readers. --Michael J. Birkner, Gettysburg College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In the 1940s, the news media became the focus of a notorious investigation. In 1944, Henry Luce, the overbearing, self-aggrandizing publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life, enjoined Robert Hutchins, the "imperious" president of the University of Chicago, to lead a Commission on Freedom of the Press. In a fascinating, prodigiously researched intellectual history, media scholar Bates offers a penetrating examination of the commission, which resulted--after 17 meetings, 58 witnesses, 225 staff interviews, and a hefty financial investment--in a controversial report, A Free and Responsible Press. Both maligned and praised when it was published in 1947, the report, Bates writes, illuminates the problems of democracy and the media that continue to vex the U.S. At a time when the public deeply distrusted journalists, Luce directed his commission to investigate newsroom bias, "foreign and domestic propaganda, corporate domination of political discourse, a fragmenting and polarized electorate, hate speech, and demagoguery, as well as what we now call echo chambers, trolls, deplatforming, and post-truth politics." The commission's egotistical, opinionated members, writes the author, "were not necessarily suited to committee work." However, they agreed that the media exerted a powerful force in shaping public opinion, even when experts told them that most people read only what they already believe and only about 20% care about public affairs. Bates fashions shrewd, deft characterizations of individual members: among them, "jaunty mystic" philosopher William Ernest Hocking; pessimistic theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; long-winded propaganda expert Harold Laswell; outspoken poet Archibald MacLeish. On the whole, the commission embraced "the democratic hypothesis" that "if people have access to the facts and arguments, they will govern themselves more wisely than anyone can govern them." But they mounted no evidence, preferring instead "to meander in vague philosophical generalities rather than do the dirty hard work of digging for facts." Nevertheless, Bates argues persuasively, the report remains influential as a seminal examination of the media. A well-constructed, timely study, clearly relevant to current debates. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.