Who Should Be the Media Gatekeepers?

by Leonard Wheeler Sr. Staff Writer

The right of the expression finds itself embedded within the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Cornell Law Library, 2010)

Often the arguments over rights are border wars; where are the boundaries of what is harmful to society, what is fair and just to the right of expression and where should the line of infringement be drawn?  Newspapers, radio, television, advertisers and writers are faced with this question on a daily basis in their routine work.

Political activist David Horowitz decided to challenge these questions by sending a controversial article to seventy college campus papers for print.  Would the media gate be open or closed to an ad titled, “Ten Reasons Why reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea – and Racist Too!”  Obviously the title was created to set a test to solicit emotion on the issue.   Would campus papers, as the gatekeepers of campus media accept the article or discern it to be too foul or potentially harmful for the public interest of the university?  Half of the universities accepted the article; perhaps to inspire a think tank and to encourage their philosophies of support of The First Amendment.  The University of Illinois printed the article in The Daily Illini because the editor’s position was that she encouraged a marketplace of ideas for the campus paper.  The editor who was well within his legal rights made no effort to support the article, but he did support the idea that students should be exposed to ideas even if contentious for their own good.  According to the articles with reference to the situation, in no way did the editor take the article to fill a position for revenue leaving this to be a pure issue of analyzing the media as a gatekeeper of information.

Media gatekeeping can be dangerous; good or bad, they remain responsible to The First Amendment.  However, The First Amendment gives the gatekeepers the right to express their own viewpoints and it pertains to advertising as well as editorial comments.  Stations, newspapers and editors must set their own moral and ethical boundaries according to personal ethics and loyalties to open or close the door at their legal discretion.  The protestors of the article claimed that the ad was insensitive to the hurdles that had been crossed in battling university racism and that the ad printing was irresponsible.  The university paper, along with Horowitz claimed that a blocking of opinion would be considered even more dangerous to the public awareness and an injustice of public service by limiting their right to know.

Since legally the paper is within its rights to decide, the determination becomes either an individual decision of either the editor in chief or the owners of the paper.  Often there is criticism in newspapers for taking political viewpoint rather then reporting news, but nonetheless once again the gatekeepers take this legal right.  Several ethical models apply to this scenario and they arrive at similar conclusions.  A person’s ethical loyalty and alignment determines the principle that applies to the controversy of media interests versus public interest.  If one were to subscribe to a John Rawls approach, they would find a political justice to reconcile liberty with fairness to balance justice.  If an editor were loyal to the absolute rights of expression and desiring to limit any powers against the amendment, they would surely print the ad, even if were potentially dangerous.  Rawls etiology reaches this conclusion since Rawls philosophy tends to “balance” the argument by using four principles.  (Leif Wenar, 2008)

Rawls viewpoint offers a complete defense for the editor’s decision.  The first is “reasonableness” and that a reasonable person might feel emotional about the article, but would not do anything drastic or harmful and even further reasonable people might use this to justify their own ethical viewpoint.  The second is that citizens ought to orient themselves into the social order in which they live. Controversy and racism being a faction of current societal problems, university students should become educated to these social issues.  Third, is to gain practical political philosophy from real people in real situations.  Dealing with racial hate is an issue that must be dealt with for the betterment of society and thus the editor maintains a loyalty to the good of potential society for betterment.  The fourth consideration is reconciliation.  If the loyalties as described above are genuine then the gatekeeper would have further interest to see the cause and effect of the ad, rather than to run it for revenue.  (Leif Wenar, 2008)

In this case, the editor did allow an article to be placed by the opposing viewpoint for the same reasons as he decided to run the first ad.  It is conclusive from behind the Rawls curtain as well as the Utilitarianism (for the good of the majority) curtain that the editor did make the correct moral decision.

The First Amendment, Cornell Law Library, Cornell University, 2010 Retrieved from http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998

Wenar, Leif, “John Rawls”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/rawls/>.