Prose & Comments: The ongoing struggles for a free media

By Stephen Gessner

I was impressed by the recent Shelter Island Reporter editorial: “Community newspapers, essential to democracy” (Aug.28), which stressed the importance of small-town newspapers.

This point is strongly made by the Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, in her recent book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” Ms. Sullivan mourns the closing of many small newspapers and the impact that demise has had on democracy.

Coincidentally, as I was reading about these developments, a friend told me of his discovery of a prophetic speech my grandfather, Eduard Lindeman, gave at his Alma Mater, Michigan State University in 1946. Lindeman was a professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work. In his speech, entitled “The Mood and Temper of the American People”, he discusses the demise of local newspapers, speaking some 70 years before Sullivan.

He writes: “The Press in America is slowly becoming a vast business monopoly … There are now 205 cities in the United States with one daily newspaper and one radio outlet, both owned by the same man. In the state of Virginia there are only twenty-five daily newspapers left in the whole state, sixteen of them owned by the same man.”

Those figures of course have gotten much worse.

In that talk, he expands his discussion from newspapers to radio, the dominant mass media platform at that time. He speaks of how what we now call media is “destroying the habit of democratic opinion formation. We don’t sit around in small groups any more exchanging our knowledge and our experience. We now wait to hear what our favorite commentator says about it … Some of them even have little tricks to make you believe that they are closer to the sources of knowledge than you are.”

This criticism of media is often heard now, but was little mentioned almost three-quarters of a century before. Now we speak of the internet, cable TV, and still, of course, radio, all creating division, conspiracy and hate.

Much of Lindeman’s despair was influenced by his visit to Germany in 1945, just prior to this talk, where he served as an adviser to the British government. He described ”a sinister atmosphere” that engulfed him and led him to ask, “Could this happen elsewhere? Could something like this happen to my country, too? And finally, I had to answer in the affirmative. ‘Yes, this can happen.’ If you did the same thing in this country that the Germans did.”

One of those things he cites is how Germany manipulated public opinion into hatred and how hate destroys the hater.

There so many more prophetic statements, but I will end as Lindeman did with the things that give him hope. He lists a number of programs that the U.S. needs to undertake. It reads like the 2020 Democratic Party Platform: Housing, Health, Education, Race Relations, Stable Economy, and Foreign Policy. He says we have to stop supporting dictators, which makes him state that, “No wonder the world mistrusts us. No wonder our prestige has gone so low.”

But all is not lost, if American can recover its stature in the world, that will “give the world a fair hope for peace.”

I am so proud of my grandfather, a bold and far-reaching thinker, whose prophecies  and despairs sadly have turned into reality, but who still offers hope and, as he puts it, remains a “semi-discouraged optimist.”

Stephen Gessner, Ph.D., lives on Shelter Island and Amelia Island, Fla.