Book: Saving the News: Why the Constitution calls for Government Action to preserve Freedom of Speech
Author: Martha Minow
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year of Publication: October 2021
Reviewer: Umaru A. Pate (Federal University, Kashere, Gombe State)
This is a pragmatic publication that examined the current state of news gathering, processing and dissemination in the context of evolving information and communication technologies. The profound changes in the media and communication industry occasioned by the advent of the internet and rise in new communication technologies with limitless opportunities and numerous challenges presumably informed the title of the book: Saving the News. The title is, indeed, suggestive that the news media and the concept of news as we know are changing fast with growing consequences that require immediate interventions to save the news and protect the right and freedom of speech for sustained democracy.
The book has five chapters with generous references and relevant bibliographical details. Even though it was written in the context of the United States of America (USA), however, I have found it to be clearly reflective of our condition in Nigeria and most democratic countries. After all, the revolutionary changes and disruptions in the media industry occasioned by the internet and other communication technologies are universal in application with global impact.
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Today, the technological changes in the sector have deeply penetrated our daily lives without our policies, laws and institutions in many countries being able to keep pace in their governance regimes.
In the words of the book’s preface writer, Newton Minow, a respected retired manager and regulator in the American media industry, incidentally the father of the author, “we have been so busy learning how to use technology that we neglected to learn how to direct and govern technology.” The consequence is a “profound challenge to democracy.”
That, I think, is the crux that Professor Martha Minow convincingly addressed from the angle of news in the media. In the text, the author, a foremost scholar in constitutional law and civil procedure at the School of Law, Harvard University, had shown how the selection and gatekeeping functions in the business of news are increasingly handled by computers and powers outside the system with detrimental effects on sustainable media funding, credibility, freedom of speech, public interest, individual privacy and, importantly, opinion formation and expression for democratic sustenance.
In the introduction and chapters one and two, the author reflected on the purpose of journalism and the changes that have, over time, profoundly affected the news ecosystem in the United States and invariably the whole world. She argued that the rise of the new technologies as manifested in the digital and social media landscape easily facilitated the entry of new owners into the news business, resulting in a general decline of news in the conventional media with multiple disruptions, reduced patronage and drastic decline in advertising revenue.
There are also issues of truth, freedom, shrinking audiences, relevance in coverage and safety of news and news professionals, thus compounding “the crisis in journalism and the news business in the United States.” Indeed, not only in the USA but one can comfortably say the whole world. The effects are obvious in the media landscape of most democratic nations. In the words of the author: “The central problem now is not governmental overregulation curtailing freedom of speech but inadequate government involvement to prevent domination by a few companies and the swamping of users with a plethora of messages, propaganda, memes and ads.” But again, with the First Amendment, to what extent can the US government be safely involved in policy actions without violating the law?
In chapter three, Professor Minow noted the limitations of government but submitted that irrespective of the First Amendment, in the present circumstances, “a strong case can be made that public policy can protect users from bombardment by computer-generated messages and implement other reforms designed to screen out uninvited distractions” and protect “the generation, production and distribution of news” and, ultimately save democracy in concept and practice.
The last chapter admitted to the complexity of the problem and the difficulties of finding appropriate solutions for them soon. For instance, in the current scenario, “the introduction of digital communication led to the migration of attention, advertising and financial investment to a few global tech companies that do not consider themselves to be in the publishing industry, much less the news business.”
Accordingly, she proposed a number of options and approaches for different actors to save the news, protect the media and audiences, uphold public trust in public media and overcome the current challenges that are set to undermine the integrity of the news media and poison the fundamental concept and practice of freedom of expression and democracy.
I have particularly noted two of her recommendations which are likely to advance the debate on social media conduct and digital news platforms in many countries that, “internet platform companies should be treated as responsible actors…internet platforms should be subject to the same liabilities as any distributor, and perhaps as any publisher”. And, “government should help protect individuals from harm and abuse caused by the large internet platforms…” by enforcing a number of options that she outlined.
Reading through this book, I could see the exact situation in Nigeria being described from the American perspective. All the challenges, gaps and the existential threats confronting the Nigerian media industry are creatively captured and the proposed solutions evidently relevant to Nigeria, irrespective of the differences in its politics, laws and social realities from that of the United States. I could see that there are serious lessons for us in Nigeria.
Accordingly, I am strongly recommending the text to our scholars, media professionals, legal minds, policy makers, students and anyone with interest on issues of media law and policy and media and society. Definitely, this is one book that each postgraduate student in media studies in our universities will be advised to review and identify the lessons for us in Nigeria.
The publication is apt and timely in diagnosing the existential threats to the news ecosystem and the conventional media industry in most countries. Convincingly, too, the author talked about the consequences of the threats and proffered evidence-based policy options that are likely to be enforced without injuring the rights and freedoms of citizens in democratic settings.
Above all, I salute the conviction and courage of the author in making profound recommendations in the American setting. I won’t be surprised if her arguments spark contentious debates. Notwithstanding, it’s an exciting book to read. It is well written, the issues expertly argued and the recommendations truly practical and relevant to save the news and protect freedom of speech and ultimately democracy.