The following prospectus describes the mission and research scope for a proposed “center for media freedom and public culture,” which I sketched as a fellow at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge between 2017 and 2018:
Throughout the past decade, ultranationalist movements and autocratic leaders have begun to resurface globally, openly denigrating independent journalists. Today, international media freedom advocacy requires more than the promotion of legal protections and political reforms. What are now needed are institutions and cultures in which the values, attitudes and beliefs that underpin such protections and reforms are broadly shared. Until this is achieved, political actors will continue to face relatively little public resistance when they malign independent journalists and the supranational organizations and pro-democracy groups which champion them.
This focus on understanding the public cultures which best foster, or most frustrate, the pursuit of media freedom will be the principal trait which distinguishes this initiative from other advocacy organizations working on various aspects of this topic. A variety of organizations chronicle abuses against reporters (e.g., Committee to Protect Journalists), track legal cases over crackdowns on dissent (e.g., Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression Initiative), and rank countries based on indicators of media freedom (e.g., Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders). Our initiative will focus on publics more than policies, citizens’ perspectives more than states’ practices. A core premise of our approach is that public culture provides the conditions for political behavior.
New scholarship – including my own field research – illuminates this premise. Three examples follow. In the Czech Republic, independent journalism abruptly materialized in the wake of the Cold War, before a democratic culture could take root. So pluralism emerged in tandem with polarization. One Czech media scholar compares his country’s press to a reality show and observes an “inclination towards emotive expression of exalted, one-sided attitudes, tawdry language bordering on vulgarity, general crudeness of communication and declining identification with the journalistic profession as a life mission.” A consultant for Andrej Babis – the Czech media mogul, finance minister, and rumored presidential aspirant – is a leader in the field of “political marketing,” which likens candidate strategies to product marketing and is popular among Eastern European media scholars. She wondered aloud to me in 2015, “How do you deal with populism and the media? When eighty percent of Czechs are terrified of the immigration crisis, what is a politician supposed to do?”
A Chinese journalist working for an American news outlet discussed ways in which the Chinese media’s economic reforms have had some unanticipated consequences. Sitting in a coffee shop in Shanghai in 2013, he explained to me how “commercialism [within journalism] is intensifying nationalism, not undercutting it.” This is because the increasing economic and political influence of journalists and editors hasn’t been accompanied by the kinds of adversarial or cosmopolitan attitudes typically found within a culture of media independence. The news thus takes on a nationalistic and populist tone as part of a market strategy seeking a large audience.
In a trip to Havana in 2014, I asked a Cuban government official what he thought of the U.S. news media (he had lived in New York City as member of the Cuban mission to the UN during George W. Bush’s administration). “Believe me, we didn’t like Bush, but when we watched American television, we were shocked at how disrespectful your news anchors were toward him.” He insisted that, even if the media were privatized in Cuba, such an oppositional outlook toward the government would be abhorrent to Cuban journalists and citizens alike.
From these three examples, it’s clear that the promotion of media freedom is potentially fruitless – and can even have adverse consequences – without the promotion of the public cultures most supportive of it.
OBJECTIVES & TACTICS
The principal goal of this initiative will be to better understand the cultural conditions under which media freedom thrives, and to use that knowledge to inform media policy debates and foster such cultures internationally. We define media freedom broadly as journalists’ editorial independence from control, interference, or intimidation from politically and economically powerful actors. Also, we maintain an inclusive definition of the news “media,” in recognition of the changing practices and publication platforms of journalism in the digital era.
The issues we will confront are complex, not least because of the vast diversity and dynamism of national political cultures. We will strive to address and accommodate this complexity, and use the rigorous, empirical methods of social science to produce research which is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. We recognize there is no “one-size-fits-all” model of democracy, and attempt to produce research sensitive to different cultural and political contexts. Yet a critical premise of this work – indeed, our raison d’être – is that media freedom is a universal right. This follows Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The specific activities which will help us achieve this goal are outlined here. These will be improved and amended by the continuous involvement of an advisory board comprised of reputable journalists, scholars, policymakers, media and technology executives, and NGO leaders dedicated to media freedom.
Annual Tracking Report: Media Freedom & Public Culture
Working with institutional partners around the world (e.g., universities, research institutes and/or private research firms), we will produce an annual report which will measure public attitudes and opinions related to the acceptance and/or appreciation of media freedom. We will blend quantitative and qualitative methods, distributing surveys and conducting structured interviews. We will conduct and/or commission research in 20 geographically and politically diverse countries within the first year, and attempt to expand the scope over time.
“Profiles in Media Freedom” Speaker Series
During the nine months of the academic year, we will host a monthly event featuring a journalist, media scholar, NGO leader, or public official who has contributed meaningfully to our understanding of the relationship between media freedom and public culture. These speakers will represent a diversity of nationalities, races, genders, ages, ideological inclinations, and levels of existing public recognition. To promote civic and scholarly engagement, this will be open to the public (including the press) and to all interested students and faculty.
Ph.D. Student Fellowships
Each year, we will provide a fellowship to one of the incoming Ph.D. students at NYU. This fellowship will reimburse the university for the student’s graduate stipend for up to five years of enrollment. These graduate fellows will commit a given number of hours per week to research assistance. Students will benefit from having their own research advised, financially supported and published. They will be encouraged to organize graduate student symposia on the topic of media freedom and public culture, which will be supervised and supported by this initiative.
Visiting Fellows Program
In addition to the graduate fellowships to support junior scholars, we will create a visiting fellows program which will host accomplished scholars and practitioners who propose a promising year-long research project on a topic related to media freedom and public culture. The program will offer a significant fellowship award in exchange for in-residence research and mentorship of graduate students. Future development activities will support a named fellowship, aiming to begin with two visiting fellows in the project's third year, and expand the support to four visiting fellows in year five and thereafter. This gives us an opportunity to establish our reputation as a hub of valuable research and effective advocacy before seeking to attract top applicants.
Our leadership will collaborate with the curriculum committees within NYU to develop and deliver course offerings related to media freedom and public culture internationally. Courses will be offered at both the undergraduate or graduate level and be taught by affiliated faculty. Sample course titles include: “Media and the Cultures of Transparency,” “Political Journalism in the Global Era,” and “Freedom of Expression Online.”