It may be surprising to hear that public opinion in a democracy can be tyrannical. In a democracy, we want to believe that public opinion will also be democratic. Yet, public opinion is tyrannical in any community because a community needs to regulate the opinions within it to survive. A democracy is no different. The issue, though, is whether that opinion simply regulates or tyrannizes thought. The challenge for the press is to help with the former without succumbing to the latter.
When Athenians put Socrates to death it was because he refused to acknowledge the gods the city believed. He refused to accept the tyranny of thought that the city had to impose to survive. The alternative was to say that the city’s opinions were wrong and Socrates was right. If they had would that have been a democratic outcome?
Unlike Athens, the press mediate the public opinion. The press have replaced the Athenian polis which means the democratic citizen’s participation is mediated by the press. Unlike the Athenians though, the press claim to act in the public interest. Here we can see that Socrates’ efforts were not in vain as the public interest and public opinion are not considered the same in a democracy. The public interest is supposed to guide public opinion. Public opinion represents a community’s shared opinion. Usually the public interest is defined by a written constitution that expresses a community’s opinion about the common good. However, the constitution can only act as a guide or as a final arbiter rather than define public opinion’s limits. In a free society, the press appeal to the public interest beyond public opinion. However, the public interest is not simply the higher good beyond the community’s good. Therein we see the problem.
In a democratic society public opinion does not define the public interest. Instead, public opinion only expresses the common opinion about justice and the good society. Such a view is not the final view because it is changeable. Thus public opinion becomes a political instrument to be captured. Understood in this way, we see that adversarial journalism’s claim to know the public interest is simply another form of tyranny. When a journalist claims to know the national security significance of stolen NSA documents, they act tyrannically. They usurp the community and the democratically elected government to decide what is best for society. They act without consent or a democratic mandate. Unlike Socrates who only doubted the city’s gods because of his appeal to the possibility of a higher truth, the adversarial journalist claims to know the higher truth.
The democratic citizen faces a difficult choice. Their access to the public domain is mediate by the press. Without an institution to resist the tyranny of public opinion, a citizen is less likely to participate in the public domain. However, the democratic challenge remains. A democracy must regulate public opinions to protect itself without succumbing to tyranny or anarchy.