CFP96 Plenary Session

Leveling The Playing Field: Mass Communication Versus Mass Media

Moderator:John Seigenthaler
Panelists: Mike Godwin
Donna Hoffman
Bill Kovach
John Schwartz
Sander Vanocur
Organizers: Ned Ramage
Bruce Koball
Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses.

On the Net, you see, the First Amendment's promise of freedom of the press is not limited to Time Warner or Gannett or the New York Times.
-- Mike Godwin

Will computer-mediated communications really level the playing field between the traditional mass media of print and broadcast and the emerging new media of mass communication?

Traditional media -- print and broadcast -- are based on a one-to-many model where a single, select voice speaks to many listeners. Such a model implies a concentration of power; the ownership of the means of production and distribution gives the owner control of the content as well as the conduit through which the content flows.

With decades or even centuries of historical precedent, the traditional media have become a familiar presence. We know -- or think we know -- what to expect from them, and what role they play in our social and political lives.

By comparison, the new media -- computer-mediated communications in the online world -- offer a many-to-many model. Here any individual voice may command an audience, based not on wealth, power and ownership, but on the value of the speaker's content.

In virtual venues such as online conferencing systems, Usenet, and the World Wide Web -- all facilitated by the global matrix of networks and computers known as the Internet -- these new media are being used by increasing numbers of people. We are beginning to see their effect in the domains of social and political discourse, as well as in commerce and in the private lives of individuals, worldwide.

In the past governments have recognized the power and importance of the traditional media and have made numerous attempts, successful and unsuccessful, at controlling them. In modern democratic societies, traditional media have typically enjoyed a "preferred position" -- sometimes de facto and sometimes de jure -- but the concentration of media power and the potentially corrosive effect that it may have on the public discourse vital to democratic institutions remains a concern.

In the modern context, governments usually address this concern with more circumspect measures. Limitations on media cross-ownership in the U.S. is one example. In the current legislative environment in Washington, more emphasis is being given to the free-market approach, trusting it to foster competition and to promote diversity. Still, the fetters have not been removed completely.

There is, however, no clear consensus on the power and effect of the new media on democratic institutions. Proponents paint rosy scenarios, projecting the growth of an electronic commons, with improved access to information and the mechanisms of governance fostering a grass-roots renaissance of public participation in political life. But most observers would agree that the jury is still out on these promises.

Because the technological infrastructure for the new media is inherently distributed -- in location, ownership, and control -- the concentration of power in the manner of traditional media may appear unlikely. This does not mean, however, that the new media have escaped government scrutiny. Indeed, the distributed -- some would say anarchic -- nature of the Internet has been cause for concern, and recent legislation from the U.S. Congress, aimed at controlling content on the net, has been hotly debated.

It seems that the conflict inherent in the two models representing the traditional and new media is beginning to play out in important ways, and is raising intriguing questions:


John Seigenthaler is chair and founder of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and Chair Emeritus of The Tennessean, Nashville's morning newspaper where he worked for 43 years -- as a reporter, editor, publisher and CEO. During his years as editor, The Tennessean won every major award in journalism, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Sigma Delta Chi and the National Headliner Award. He was founding editorial director of USA TODAY and worked for ten years in that post before his retirement from both The Tennessean and USA TODAY in January 1992.

Seigenthaler left journalism in the 1960's to work in government as Administrative Assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with assignments in the areas of civil rights and judicial selection. During the 1961 Freedom Rides, he was President Kennedy's chief negotiator with the Governor of Alabama and during that crisis, he was attacked by a mob of whites and hospitalized. Contact: (615) 321-9588


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Last updated April 6, 1996