Clickbait and Democracy in America

Tocqueville in the Digital Age

Posted by Isaac Rowe on November 29, 2015

In the opening of the third chapter of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes a surprising comment: “I avow that I do not hold that complete and instantaneous love for the freedom of the press that one accords to things whose nature is unqualifiedly good. I love it out of consideration for the evils it prevents much more than for the good it does.” This seems like an outrageous statement to a modern American who has never questioned the idea that the press should be as free as the wind. Tocqueville, while occasionally criticizing specific implementations or consequences, usually supports the underlying radical nature of American political solutions, but this time the verdict is decidedly less supportive than others. He apparently does not support freedom of press because of its principal, but because it is not as bad as censorship in its effects.

This passage is interesting for discussion because of its more disapproving stance, but also for the implications to its modern audience. Such observations about the state and influence of journalism are increasingly relevant today, as the vast most journalistic content that is consumed and shared is generally of low quality, despite the existence of many quality journalistic organizations. This phenomenon can be seen in the kinds of “viral content” that is spread on social media, where little effort is put into fact-checking or critical thinking about complex subjects and content is distilled into lists and images. Just this week, Yahoo News accidentally published an unfinished review of an unreleased pop album, complete with fill-in-the-blank segments like “[NAME RELEVANT SONG…THAT MATCHES DESCRIPTION]” to support an already fabricated “critical opinion” of the album. Cable news networks use sensationalist headlines, with creates the same ill effects. Even when higher-quality content is available, many people only read headlines before commenting upon a subject. For example NPR’s 2014 April Fool’s prank, a post with the inflammatory headline, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” contained only content instructing savvy readers to observe how their friends commented upon articles without reading by sharing the headline without context.

Many people wonder how this proliferation of pseudo-journalism came about. Some posit that the American people might be less educated that they have been in ages past, or that technology is antithetical to learning or “true journalism.” Long before the rise of digital media, Tocqueville foresaw these results. Specifically, Tocqueville notes that complete freedom of the press coupled with the low costs associated with producing journalism effectively destroys the value of the content itself, through supply and demand. Essentially, when the press is in the hands of the people, the content that is created is the content that is profitable. In an area where there is state control of the media, profits are not as important as presenting a good image, so there is not a capitalistic motive. Tocqueville says that sometimes capitalism and journalism are in opposition to each other, resulting in the dilution of quality in media, citing an example from the day’s newspapers:

To judge the difference that exists between the Anglo-Americans and us, I have only to cast a glance at the newspapers of the two peoples. In France, commercial advertisements take up only a very restricted space and even news items are not very numerous; the vital part of newspaper is the one where political discussions are found. In America three-quarters of the immense newspaper that is placed before your eyes is filled with advertisements, the rest is most often occupied by political news or simple anecdotes; only from time to time does one perceive in an overlooked corner one of the burning discussions that are the daily fodder of readers among us.

What this means for modern society is that perhaps government oversight is necessary to preserve excellent journalism, to prevent it from drowning in the flood of the information age. The chain is only as good as its weakest link, and by embracing a press by the people, the quality is reduced to that of the least common denominator. The result is that the “spirit of the journalist in America is to attack coarsely, without preparation and without art, the passions of those whom it addresses” Democracy gave America the press it deserved, but not the one it needed.

So what was to gain by all this? Embracing democracy in the press meant giving up the hope of having only the most elite journalists comprise the American media, but did that mean it was destined for failure? Probably not, and as Tocqueville illustrates, there is a distinct trade-off. In place of an esteemed media that employs elegant rhetoric to comment on political issues, the United States has a nearly unlimited amount of semi-professional citizen journalists that have the collective ability to leave nothing uncovered. The sheer magnitude of the American media machine makes up for its lack of finesse, providing an advantage over journalism in the Old World. Tocqueville , at the end of the section, concedes that there is merit to the American way of journalism:

The press still exercises an immense power in America. It makes political life circulate in all sections of this vast territory. Its eye, always open, constantly lays bare the secret springs of politics and forces public men to come in turn to appear before the court of opinion…When a large number of organs of the press come to advance along the same track, their influence becomes almost irresistible in the long term, and public opinion, struck always from the same side, ends by yielding under their blows.

Effectively, upholding complete freedom of the press means to prefer a multitude of amateur works over a few refined ones; quantity makes quality. America might not have the best or the brightest, but with complete freedom, it has the most, and by pure strength, it can outdo even the most elite. In the era of “crowdsource everything”, nothing could seem more true.