Some Guy Named Chafee, on Relations Between Government and Mass Media
For further examination of Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s decision to not allow state officials to participate in (certain aspects) of talk radio, let us turn towards a figure from another era, widely revered for his ideas on the subject of government and mass communication. The individual to whom I refer is the renowned First Amendment and free speech scholar Zechariah Chafee Jr., Professor of Law at Harvard University and primary author of a 1947 report put forward by a body known as “The Commission on Freedom of the Press” titled Government and Mass Communications. I believe he also had a nephew and a grand-nephew who went into the more practical side of politics.
Part III of Government and Mass Communications is titled “The Government as a Party to Communications”. Chapter 25 within that section is titled “The Government Talks to the People”. Despite the fact that the book was written before the birth of the talk radio formats which predominate the locally-produced politically and civically oriented broadcasts of today, many of Professor Chafee’s ideas are relevant to Governor Chafee’s decision to bar members of state government from appearing on certain local radio programs.
1. Regarding any from of communication between government and the media, Professor Chafee expressed skepticism about favoring one media organization or reporter over another…
[Press conferences] supply a much fairer method for getting governmental news and ideas into newspapers than the practice, which Theodore Roosevelt had initiated, of giving important stories to a single correspondent. “If a story is public, it should be made public,”, said an experienced informant. “To release it only to a favorite correspondent is definitely a harmful practice.”It is hard to believe that Professor Chafee would have supported a blanket ban on government participation in particular media outlets, for reasons of either organizational structure (i.e the “for-profit” rationale) or conflicts between individual personalities.
2. Professor Chafee did express some specific ideas about the medium of radio…
When a President had many things to say, he was obliged to improvise a series of meetings in widely separated cities…The radio has changed all this. Unfortunately, its great merits were first appreciated by unmeritorious leaders. Still, not many years elapsed before Roosevelt and Churchill realized that a statesman at last had what he always needed — a direct road from his mind to the minds of millions, open for use almost the moment his thoughts were matured.The Professor probably would not have harbored the attitude, which emanates from some Rhode Island quarters, that a Governor elected by the voters should not spend much time talking via long-form radio interviews directly to the voters. Rather, Professor Chafee saw the technologies which allowed executives to communicate their thoughts directly to the people as a positive, when in the hands of a meritorious leader (I’m pretty sure by “unmeritorious” leaders, he is referring to the European Fascists and the American “Populists” of interwar and World War II eras).
3. As to the purposes for which a meritorious leader talks directly to the people, Professor Chafee offered that…
Many purposes come to mind which can be promoted through governmental information. The broadest of all, perhaps, is to provide models of discussion that win respect for “talk” as an efficient, orderly means of clarifying goals, trends and the alternatives among which a choice is to be made. Free government depends in part on maintaining confidence in “talk”. Many forms of existing public discussion undermine respect for it. Often, the proceedings follow no clear line and seem to provide no more than entertainment or the chance to sound off in an undisciplined fashion.The idea of a top priority of government being to provide examples to the public seems quaint today, embraced by neither the modern right, who see government full of strange behaviors to be avoided, nor the modern left, who see example-setting as a function secondary to the direct technocratic management of society. But the fact that the patricians of Professor Chafee’s era assumed something no longer uncritically accepted, i.e. that the best exemplars of civil behavior would automatically find a place government, does not diminish the importance of recognizing that government leaders do set examples that certainly will be observed and, to some degree, that will be emulated.
Whether he intends to or not, Governor Chafee (the younger) is providing a model of a leader who is either unwilling or unable to directly express matured thoughts directly to the public and who would prefer to eschew the process of persuasion and “talk” as much as possible. To be frank, he gives every appearance of fearing that “talk” will highlight a lack of coherence between the goals that important to society and the choices that his administration will make. The damage done by this example — if you believe the ideas that Professor Chafee sought to advance — impacts more than just short term political fortunes or to the day-to-day operation of government; it extends to a weakening of the democratic fabric in general.
Or maybe you believe that Great Uncle Zechariah had it all wrong.