Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Today’s editorial offering is academic. But it’s about a subject that is important: Your role with the media in our representative democracy. 

The setup: In 1943, Robert M. Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago, convened a national commission of eggheads to consider freedom of the press. Funded by Time Inc.’s Henry Luce and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Hutchins Commission published a groundbreaking report in 1947, “A Free and Responsible Press,” that continues to have an impact today.

The report essentially says the media have a social responsibility to provide information in a democratic society so people who live in that society can make informed decisions about their government. It goes on to list tenets that must be fulfilled for a free press to flourish, including how the media must offer “a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” It also should offer a forum to exchange comments and criticism, and to share them. Finally, the press ideally should help to clarify society’s goals and reach members of the community. 

The report noted: “The free press must be free to all who have something worth saying to the public, since the essential object for which a free press is valued is that ideas deserving a public hearing shall have a public hearing.”

Part of the responsibility of the media is to publish a broad range of ideas — including opinions from readers — to keep democracy vibrant.

“Civilized society is a working system of ideas,” the report concluded. “It lives and changes by the consumption of ideas. Therefore it must make sure that as many as possible of the ideas which its members have are available for its examination.”

Today’s application: With the invention of the Internet, anybody now can be a publisher. But what’s happened in our tribal society is the sad reduction of civilized discussion of ideas that move democracy forward. Often, online responses to what’s in the media are little more than coarse comments — flames and attacks that promote division in a country where there’s too much of it already.

This month, the Charleston City Paper launched a long-overdue website update, and you may have noticed we removed comments at the bottom of stories. For many years, online comments were a great place to discuss stories. But eventually, annoying spam and toxic trolls often took over, making it difficult for loyal commenters to attempt dialogue.

If you want instant gratification, we encourage you to comment directly to our frequent posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But if you want to share a more substantive reaction on our news, views and photos, we urge you to write a traditional letter to the editor, either by email (feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com), the form at charlestoncitypaper.com or by mail. All must be signed and meet our standards. Every Saturday, we’ll publish a curated, verified collection of letters and comments. 

For democracy to flourish, there must be a vigorous flow of ideas. Our free alternative weekly takes that social responsibility seriously. We look forward to hearing from you.