Free Expression and Public Dialogue
VTR Date: January 9, 1981
Daniel Yankelovich discusses his concerns around freedom of expression.
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GUEST: Daniel Yankelovich
AIR DATE: 01/09/1981
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today’s program is about what has been identified as a fascinating schism between the American public at large and leaders, decision makers in the media in reference to their views on freedom of expression. Some years ago, certain scholars began to embrace a new, more positive definition of a perspective towards freedom of speech. They began to focus perhaps a bit less on the speaker, a bit more on the listener, correctly reevaluating our founders’ emphasis on free speech. They saw it less as a right of those who would speak than of those who would listen. They saw more clearly than others its original utilitarian value. Free speech had been guaranteed, after all, not for the sake of individual speakers, but rather for the sake of an entire nation of listeners. It was their interests that were paramount. It was their interests that ultimately would be disserved if they couldn’t avail themselves of whatever divergent ideas might be current in a free society. So that freedom of speech basically meant and means freedom of us all to hear and to listen, to enhance our interests and understanding by having access to every imaginable type and shape and form of speech. But it takes two to tango. And now the Public Agenda Foundation, created some years ago by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and public opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich, has focused our attention on the subject with a brilliantly provocative report that it calls “The Speaker and the Listener: A Public Perspective on Freedom of Expression.” And my guest is Daniel Yankelovich.
Thanks for joining me today, Dan. I want to begin by saying that the very fact that the Public Agenda has put out this report of freedom of expression must indicate that you’re concerned about that theme in our society today. Is that a fair assumption on my part?
YANKELOVICH: Yes, it is. I really sort of smell trouble brewing on the freedom of expression front. Well, for example, I, about an hour ago, I clipped from today’s paper this little squibb where it says, “Calls for banning of library books rise sharply since election,” since the presidential election. And the library association reports a five-fold increase in the number of complaints about books on library shelves, very, what I would regard as innocuous books like Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus then mentioned, Harold Robbins’ The Lonely Lady. These aren’t books on pornography or violence, but they’re books which some groups in this society feel are to be censored, feel ought not to be available. And the public libraries feel that they are on the leading edge of freedom of speech, and they’re very concerned about it, as am I. And the reason for the concern is that if you think back over the last 20 years or so, two things have to come together to cause a real disruption in the society. If you take McCarthyism, you had a small group of people headed by McCarthy, and a large group of the public who were concerned about communism. You have, in other words, a small group of ideologically charged up people, and a large majority with a legitimate complaint that may be different; but the two blend together. Let me give you a couple of other examples. During the period of the student rebellion on campus, our studies show that at the worst days of the war in Vietnam, we never had more than eight or nine percent who identified with the new left and who felt that American institutions were rotten to the core. But you had 60, 70 percent, a majority of students who were concerned about the Vietnam War. So those two things coalesced, and you had a mass movement that seemed directed against some institutions. I know that in the 70s you had a small group who were all charged up about business abuses and were anti-corporate in their attitudes, and you had a large majority of consumers who were legitimately concerned about product safety and health. And these two came together to create many of the abuse and regulations that we’re saddled with today.
So I see the same sort of thing happening now on freedom of expression. We have a small group who are charged up about, who want to ban books, who want to burn books, who want to censor shows on television, who are concerned about the direction in which the country is going, and concerned in the form of wanting to interfere with freedom of expression. But you have a large majority group in the country that have a legitimate concern about fairness of presentation of issues on television and in the press. And my fear is that these two issues are going to get blurred, that they’re going to merge, and in the 80s we’re going to see increasing pressure on freedom of expression, and it’s going to be very confused. People aren’t going to know whether it’s supported by a majority or minority or what.
HEFFNER: But it’s interesting to me that you say this now. I read your report on the speaker and the listener, and I gather from it a sense of deep, profound need on your part and that of your colleagues to indicate that the American public is not as opposed to freedom of speech as the media masters would have indicated over the past generation. And now I know you’re not saying the opposite now.
YANKELOVICH: No, no. No, no.
HEFFNER: The thrust of your report was that there is a basic respect for what the public perceives as fairness through freedom of speech. Is that…
YANKELOVICH: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I wouldn’t…I’m sorry if I gave any other impression, because what we found was contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom, that the public is no more, is just as concerned about freedom of expression as anybody in the media. That in fact it is the liberty, the form of liberty that people feel is the emblem of our democracy. And people feel intensely about it. They feel passionately in defense of it. But they have a different conception of freedom of expression.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, a different conception?
YANKELOVICH: Well, from the public’s point of view, the point of view of the listener…
YANKELOVICH: …what freedom of expression means to people is the freedom to hear all sides of an issue. And from that point of view, people, a majority of people, will support viewpoints that are obnoxious to them personally, but they feel they have to be heard, they have a right to be heard, because they want to hear all sides of issues. Let me give you a few statistics. You have 61 percent, a large majority of the public, who feel that communists have a right to present their point of view on television, 59 percent who feel that Nazis have the right to have their own newspaper. Now, communism and Nazism is anathema to the American public, but that point of view that all issues should be heard, that the more controversial the issue the more necessary it is to have all sides presented. The media people don’t have that point of view, because they have the point of view of the speaker, of the writer. And their point of view is that the First Amendment guarantees them the right to say whatever they want and, as one writer put it, the most precious aspect of the First Amendment is the right to be wrong if necessary. You don’t need a First Amendment to protect people who are always wise and well balanced and prudent. But you need a First Amendment to have speakers who may be stupid on occasion or biased or opinionated. You have two different points of view. One is the…And it’s not a matter of right versus wrong; it’s a matter of right versus right. One is the speaker’s point of view who insists upon his right to say whatever he wants, however biased and one-sided it may be. And the public’s point of view, who insists that its right is to get all sides of an issue in some fair way. That’s the public’s definition of fairness. And these two issues come into these two, these two conceptions come into collision.
HEFFNER: Dan, let me ask you about that. You say there are two rights here, not one right and one wrong. Somewhere you draw the line though. Somewhere your own sense of what a valid interpretation of what freedom of expression meant to the founders has to surface. Don’t you take a position, don’t you lean in one direction that basically the founders meant freedom of expression to serve the interests of all the nation so that everyone could hear this diversity? Or do you take the other position, that freedom of speech meant protection for the speaker?
YANKELOVICH: Well, you know, by virtue of my profession, I tend almost automatically to identify with the public position.
HEFFNER: Uh hum.
YANKELOVICH: But I recognize that that’s a personal bias on my part. I think, my concern is not to push one conception or another. My concern is that the media are misinterpreting the public’s concern. That the media look out and they look at all these studies that show that the public doesn’t recognize the Bill of Rights when it’s presented, and their attitude typically is that they and they alone care about the First Amendment, care about freedom of expression, the people out there are boobs, ignoramuses, and if you give them if you listen to them, the first Amendment would be down the drain.
HEFFNER: But isn’t that, in a sense, just the real fact of the matter? That unless you take a position on what the First Amendment or what the constitution of the United States and its Bill of Rights, what they really mean…
HEFFNER: …you really can’t balance these equities. It means one thing, or it means another.
YANKELOVICH: Well, I don’t think so. You know. I don’t see why – maybe I’m wrong. I’m not trying to fudge the issue. I know there’s a tension between them, and the tension comes up on specifics. The one that the people in the media care about passionately has to do with the role of government.
HEFFNER: Uh hum.
YANKELOVICH: Now, let’s take that, because it shows how these conceptions may come in conflict. The point of view of the media is that there should be no government regulation. And in fact, in the broadcast media, the move is toward deregulation. The public disagrees with that, because its feeling is that a certain kind of traffic-cop regulation will ensure fairness, will ensure that the public gets all sides of the issue. Now, when it comes to the content of shows, people are, don’t like sex and violence on television, particularly when exposed to children but they don’t want government regulation there because they think the government will be too heavy handed. But their conception of fairness is that the government should guarantee that the media will present all sides of an issue fairly. So you have a direct collision. Now, I don’t think my personal point of view counts there. What I fear though is that if the people in the media brush aside the public’s point of view, insist on misunderstanding it, insist on misrepresenting it, then they are going to leave themselves terribly exposed in the political climate of the 1980s. It’s a somewhat different concern than yours.
HEFFNER: Well, I’m fascinated by the fact that you said this here in your report, you said in your own essay that your experience over the years has led you to believe that excess leads to excess…
HEFFNER: That is there is that misunderstanding, we’re in for deep trouble.
HEFFNER: But isn’t it fair to say that the media people are correct in indicating that there is, that there are two basic interpretations here, one in which the emphasis is put upon freedom, and the other in which the emphasis is put upon fairness? And fairness is merely a means of achieving fairness? Isn’t that what you say the public, in terms of your survey, really embraces? That that idea, it’s fairness first? Freedom as a means of achieving fairness?
YANKELOVICH: Yeah, uh hum, freedom as a means of achieving fairness. But I think the difference is – and this may strike you as curious – I think the difference is that the public understands and sympathizes with the point of view of the media, the speaker; but the speaker does not understand and sympathize with the point of view of the public.
HEFFNER: Why do you think that’s true?
YANKELOVICH: Well, because I think that the media are the only institution in the country that, where there is no true mechanism of accountability. I think that the First Amendment is used in the way national security was used in the Nixon administration, as a blanket, as a cover for abuses. I think that there is a, I think it’s a very self-serving point of view.
HEFFNER: Yes, but national security isn’t merely an expression used by scoundrels; it is something that’s very real and very meaningful to all of us, to you, to me, to the public.
YANKELOVICH: Well, so is freedom of expression.
HEFFNER: And so is freedom of expression.
YANKELOVICH: So is freedom of expression.
HEFFNER: So that I don’t think that one can simply say they’re hiding behind or making use of this, the nice expression, “freedom of expression, free speech.”
YANKELOVICH: Well, I think that the, that an insistence of fairness…
YANKELOVICH: …is a nuisance. That it’s an intrusion. That if you regard what you have to say, if you regard the First Amendment as subscribing or supporting your legal and moral right to say whatever you want to say, whether or not it’s one-sided, then it seems to me that you are not going to be, you’re going to be likely to misinterpret someone else’s point of view. You know, but I think more…I don’t see bad will here. What I see is two different conceptions of what an informed public is. There is the journalist’s or the speaker’s conception of an informed public; and then there’s the public’s conception. Now, the journalist has the view, and it is part of what is picked up in graduate schools of journalism and within the profession, that you have an informed public when journalists are unintimidated in any way, protected by the First Amendment, when there’s some degree of competition, and when there’s some gross separation between reporting and editorializing. We look at that distinction as recognized, although with investigative journalism it tends to be blurred. But if you have those conditions, you have an informed public. So it results in today’s situation, which is a public surfeited with facts and journalists’ opinions, and terribly uninformed about what the choices are that confront the country, on the life-and-death issues of our time. So you have there one of the great systematic misunderstandings of our time. It’s a perfectly honorable misunderstanding, but it comes from a specialist’s point of view. It comes from a, I believe, a misinterpretation of what an informed public is.
HEFFNER: You say, “a specialist’s point of view.” And yet the journalist, I’m sure the press people, electronic and print, would say, and those who are concerned with what they say would maintain that there is something absolute here, that we have lived traditionally within the framework of an absolutist approach to freedom of expression, to freedom of speech. And what you’ve done, Dan Yankelovich and the public agenda, what you people have done, you’ve dug up a kind of majoritarian approach to something that had always been protected by absolute, an absolutist approach, and you’re trying to bring in a majoritarian emphasis…
YANKELOVICH: Oh, no, no, no. I…
HEFFNER: …to bear upon this.
YANKELOVICH: Yeah. No, no, no.
YANKELOVICH: No. No. I protest that concept.
HEFFNER: Okay. Please do.
YANKELOVICH: Because the, you know, it’s a natural assumption that being concerned with public opinion polls I would feel that there should be rule by public opinion polls. I think that would be a monstrous thing, a shifting majoritarian approach. What I would say would be, yes, there is an absolutist approach. Freedom of expression is an absolutist right and has to be protected. But how, what is the right? What is that absolute principle? I don’t think the absolutist principle is as defined by the journalists.
HEFFNER: What do you think it is?
YANKELOVICH: Well, I think that it is, that it’s more complex. I think that it includes the journalist’s conception of the traditional notion of the right to be wrong, who is going to say someone’s wrong. I think people like yourself and the speaker should have the right to be wrong. And I think that, in addition to that, the public has the right to hear all sides. And those two principles are not incompatible. There is tension between them, but in there there is an amalgam, there is a principle that encompasses both of them.
HEFFNER: Dan, look, at the point at which I as the speaker say, “In my speech I want to say this, this, and this. I don’t want to present that, that, and that point of view.” The listener wants that. There is a conflict…who wants to hear those other points of view, so you indicate…
YANKELOVICH: Right, right.
HEFFNER: …out of fairness and balance.
YANKELOVICH: Right, right.
HEFFNER: There is the conflict. Which is to prevail?
YANKELOVICH: Well, there is a conflict. I mean, and the application of any absolutist principle doesn’t mean that there will never be any conflict. The absolutist principle has to do with the concept “Know the truth and the truth shall make ye free.” Now, that’s an easy principle to enunciate, and a very difficult principle to fulfill. There’s no one tactic that’s going to fulfill that. There are differing means. And that’s why I’m not trying to say, “Look, the majority’s right, the public’s right, the journalists are wrong.” What I’m trying to say is that if the profession, if the media gave as much respect to the principle that the public was enunciating as the public gives to the journalists’ point of view, there would be a possibility for finding accommodations. You see, although the principle is absolutist, the application doesn’t have to be. There are people of goodwill that get together. The public’s very practical, very practical. If you ask them about freedom of expression, most of them say, you know, and how it’s represented on television today and the press, most of them say that you people are doing a great job. You know, they’re not that critical. They’re not unhappy. They think we have freedom now, they think we’re going to have more freedom in the future. That’s the way they want it. That’s the American way, that’s the fundamental right. But when certain issues come up, like government control, various, the right of journalists to publish national security secrets, the public is very pragmatic. It says, “Let’s not have rigid general principles. Let’s settle these things on a case-by-case basis.” And I think that whenever there is that kind of tension in the application of any great principle, and if you take the freedom and equality, the conflict between freedom and equality have run through the history of western life and western democracy. You can’t pin me or anybody else down and say, “Which is it? Freedom or democracy? Or freedom or equality?” It is a balance of the two that enunciates a fundamental principle. What I say is that, and what I think our research shows, Public Agenda’s research, is that: A) there is a legitimate aspect of freedom of expression that is being scanted; and B) that in the political climate of the 1980s, the media will be the losers if it insists upon ignoring it and misunderstanding it.
HEFFNER: That leads me to a question as to whether in your researches you have found that the media people are opening their ears and eyes to the kinds or responses that you have gotten from the public. Are they beginning to question their own preconceptions?
YANKELOVICH: Well, I think there is some degree of openness. I think that the openness will be more extensive in the future if the people who are concerned with this conception of fairness that I’m talking about are able to make it very concrete. If they’re able to make an alternative conception of an informed public concrete. I think that when you have a point of view that is assumed to be gospel truth, somebody comes along with another point of view that’s very easy to dismiss. You know… And there’s a lot of resistance. I mean, the first reaction is, “Well, you know, they’ve done a poll about what the public thinks about freedom of speech. What have they got to say about it? People are talking from the top of their heads about things they know nothing about, and we don’t want to be governed by polls, and we don’t want those people to tell us how to, what freedom of expression is. And besides, it’s a legal issue; it’s got nothing to do with the public.” That type of thing. Very considerable amount of resistance. I believe that if we can make it clear through the speakers, the people in the media profession, that if they don’t pay attention to the majority’s legitimate concern, they may be victimized by the minority’s demagogic concern, then they’ll listen.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that considered a threat?
YANKELOVICH: Not my threat. It’s…
HEFFNER: Well, you’re setting it before them.
YANKELOVICH: No. I’m calling attention…I mean, absolutely. I mean, if you had, if you’re in a situation where somebody is doing something, is leaving their rear end exposed, and you care about them, and you’re fearful for them, you want to call attention to the fact that their rear end is exposed. That’s not a threat. It’s a very good piece of, a hint that they should look to their rear.
HEFFNER: They seem to be saying to you, “Leave our rears alone, Yankelovich.”
YANKELOVICH: (Laughter) That’s all right. You know, they’re perfectly free to ignore this alert. But number one, it’s at their own peril, and that’s the political side of it. And there’s the more fundamental issue.
HEFFNER: In 30 seconds.
YANKELOVICH: In 30 seconds, the more fundamental issue is that eh, in the listener’s conception of fairness, there is some marvelous potential material and approaches for the media that will enrich the media’s conception of freedom of expression, as well as make political sense.
HEFFNER: So that’s the upside of the downside?
YANKELOVICH: Well, there is an upside. There’s definitely an upside.
HEFFNER: Thanks very much for pointing it out to us, because it is obviously an enormously serious problem. And I think that Public Agenda’s report on “The Speaker and the Listener: A Public Perspective on Freedom of Expression” is something that ought to be read by everyone.
Thanks so much for joining me today, Daniel Yankelovich.
YANKELOVICH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again too on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”