One of the central themes in discussions about the global economic crisis is that we need more checks and balances, both at the national and the world levels, in order for capitalism to work effectively to enhance human well-being.
Reflecting the widespread political sentiment in the United States, it would appear that just about everyone at the World Economic Forum embraces the need for greater, more far-reaching government regulation of economic activity. Making that consensus concrete will, of course, be enormously complicated, and contentious, perhaps mirroring the revolutionary changes in public regulation of private activity that defined the New Deal era. Right now there is a kind of soothing collective agreement that “something must be done”.
Yet one of the classic forms of “checks” in the checks and balances approach to social life is rarely discussed. That is an independent and free press. Davos is emblematic of the extraordinary phenomenon of globalisation, which has been and is being driven significantly by the spread of free markets since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism. All of the discussions over the last several years of an assumed “decoupling” of the rest of the world from the US economy today sound about as quaint as the purring of praise for unmediated free markets. We are in a global recession, and we are all inter-connected in ways that we barely understand or can imagine. Clearly, we need to know much, much more than we do about what is happening in the world, so that we can better act to avert dangers and build successfully on what has been achieved. That is the basic role of journalism and the press.
Yet one of the profound ironies of the modern era is that the major forces at work in the world today – most notably, a combination of new global communications technologies and a deep financial recession – are undermining the business model of the American press. These new realities are leading to significant drawbacks in the ability of news organisations to cover international news. Week after week there are reports of media struggling to survive by cutting back on foreign bureaus, foreign correspondents, and news about the world. When you add to this a rise of censorship in various parts of the world (which is another subject altogether), this is devastating one of the principal “checks” we have ever invented for making systems – whether political or economic – function in the service of the public good. In the second half of the 20th Century, as the American press developed deeper financial resources and the First Amendment was interpreted in ways to ensure it could perform as the “Fourth Estate,” we had better knowledge and arguably better capacity to make public policy decisions. That is now being put in jeopardy, at an especially crucial moment in the development of a nascent, emerging global society.