Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
10. Understanding Media: The Inside Story, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Readings Unit 10

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 10 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 10 Readings, Understanding Media: The Inside Story

  • Introduction—Understanding Media: The Inside Story

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Liberty of the Press in the United States”

  • Milton, Areopagitica

  • Hume, “On the Liberty of the Press”

  • New York Times v. Sullivan


  1. According to Tocqueville, why was the press in the United States so violent?

  2. Does false teaching present any advantages according to Milton?

  3. Why, according to Hume, did Great Britain enjoy great liberty of the press?

  4. What are some limitations on the freedom of speech according to New York Times v. Sullivan?

Introduction—Understanding Media: The Inside Story

Television appears in virtually every room. With the increasing power of computers and the Internet, media is never further away than a click of a mouse; questions about the freedom and power of the media deserve equally close attention. “Newspapers,” Tocqueville wrote of an earlier era, “therefore become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization. ... If there were no newspapers there would be no common activity.” Tocqueville reminds us that media connects and constructs people and societies as much as it informs and educates them.

The history of the freedom of the press begins with, actually before, Gutenberg’s printing press. The printing press, by creating regional newspapers and novels, is often referenced as one of the important material contributors to the development of the nation with its broad feelings of connectedness. The printing press also contributed to the possibility of reading and thinking about the world in brand new and highly individual ways. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull ordering all printers to submit a copy of any potentially publishable material to church authorities before publishing at the risk of fines and excommunication, to ensure that people did not think about things in ways that were too original or individual. In England, the power of this review passed almost entirely to the king after the Reformation; a 1534 proclamation made the requirement of a prepublication license routine.

Criticism of the government during the Tudor and Stuart reigns became a felony, which led to John Milton’s advocacy of the freedom to publish. In Areopagitica, Milton objected to prior restraint—that the government could prohibit publication—but not to the later punishment by Parliament for offensive publications. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644, but the licensing laws remained in force until 1694. Even after this loosening of censorship, some publications were still off limits—the publishing of parliamentary debates could easily result in libel suits. In order to avoid these suits, many publishers resorted to parody and disguise; they would, for example, suggest that the debates were from the town of Lilliput (Gentlemen’s Magazine) or by Marc Anthony or Cicero, a strategy employed by early colonials as well. These prosecutions were stopped in the 1770s.

In his Commentaries, one of the most important texts to the early American revolutionaries, William Blackstone advocated a free but responsible press as an important check on government power. Not until 1868, however, did truth become admissible as defense in English libel cases. The stamp tax on British newspapers that so provoked the colonists would not be rescinded until more than 100 years after the colonists had seceded from the Empire (1885). At the time of the revolution, the Americans did away with both of these elements of the state control and regulation of the press. The Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) declared with Blackstone “that the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” This idea would later be made national law in the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791) though not until the 1920s would the First Amendment, through the Fourteenth Amendment, be incorporated to apply to states.

State regulation is one threat to the freedom of the press—particularly in its role as a check against government and as a stimulant to broader thinking; of similar danger is the threat of the concentration of media in the hands of a few huge corporations. We live in a world with hundreds of satellite and cable channels, but virtually all of those channels are owned by one of seven giant companies: Tele-Communications Inc. (T.C.I.), AOL-Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, CBS, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Viacom. These seven giants, furthermore, produce most of the material they distribute. Jerry Isenberg estimates that 90 percent of the prime time material shown on all six networks belongs to G.E., Disney, Time Warner, New Corporation, CBS, Viacom, Sony, and Universal. Cable numbers are also daunting; more than half of all U.S. cable companies are owned by four companies—including T.C.I. and Time Warner. Information is so important, citizens need to be guarded in the same way we used to protect ourselves from monopolies in steel production.

The media is not just a source of information. It also, as Tocqueville suggested, makes us who we are. Citizens need to concern themselves with the connections between the media and intellectual accounts of citizenship that conceive of citizens less as the source of governmental power and more as consumers. The pervasive drive of American consumer culture in the media cannot help but affect our own conceptions of ourselves and our understandings of our connections to others. If nothing else, we increasingly act on the proposition that the missing happiness of our lives can be recovered through product purchases, not through social participation or political action. We live in a time in which the government does not really have much need for regulation of the media since large corporations are so highly regulated by their owners in favor of the wall of advertisements promising happiness and sexiness.

The readings in this chapter begin with a focus on historical accounts that contributed to contemporary notions of the freedom of the press and the importance of communication media—John Milton’s Areopagitica and David Hume’s “On the Liberty of the Press.” While these two readings were written far from the madding and crowded media we live with today, they reveal the historical background from which we built our relationship to the media world. These readings are coupled with a Supreme Court case that reveals the limits of a free American press.


site map home 10. Understanding Media: The Inside Story, Readings Democracy In America

© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy