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Media, Free Speech, & The Paradox of Democracy



“It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture.” Media and free speech can both nurture and hinder democratic practice, according to The Paradox of Democracy. Find out how.


  • Students will assess arguments made by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing in The Paradox of Democracy.
  • Students will create mind maps distinguishing between the affordances and limitations of TV, print media, and social media. 
  • Students will strategize ways to support “open communicative culture” in their classroom, school, and community.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5 Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.


90 minutes

Materials / resources

Transcript of Ezra Klein’s NYT Podcast with Sean Illing


Pens and/or markers, different colors

Lesson step-by-step

Step 1 — Framing/Introduction (5 minutes)

Open class with a short, catalyzing discussion:

  • Does media and free speech help or hinder democracy? How and/or why? Give an example to support your opinion.

This could be a discussion, an independent “Do Now” activity, and/or a private writing assignment in a journal.

Step 2 — Mind Map: TV, Print Media, and Social Media (10 minutes)

On a piece of paper, students draw mind maps to brainstorm the affordances and limitations of different types of media: TV, print, and social media. What kinds of thinking or behaviors do these media encourage? What does it take to be successful on these platforms? How effective are they at shaping public opinion?

Step 3 — Ezra Klein Podcast (30 to 45 minutes)

The teacher guides students through the transcript, or even audio excerpts, of Ezra Klein’s podcast. As students listen or read, they annotate their mind maps in a different color to note Klein and Illing’s ideas and arguments about media, power, and politics.

Teachers may choose to focus on one of the excerpts included after this lesson, below, in the Appendix.

Step 4 — Discussion (15 minutes)

According to Illing, how exactly does media and free speech both help and hinder democratic practices, or “open communicative culture?” Why is this understanding important for democracy?

Step 5 — Strategize (20 minutes)

In groups, choose a school-wide issue and brainstorm a media approach to reporting on it. How will your chosen media help to support your focus? How will you connect with your audience and build trust? How will your work negotiate an information space that “has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet”? How will your work be effectively persuasive?


Depending on time, students could listen to the podcast. Listening to the podcast could be assigned as homework before the class meeting, then students may come to class ready to discuss. This lesson could lead to pitches. Teachers might work with students to brainstorm strategies to educate the community about first amendment rights and social issues throughout the year.

Appendix: Excerpts

  • Ezra Klein: We tend to think of liberal democracies, but that’s only one possibility. You can have illiberal democracies. Democracies can vote themselves into fascism. Democracy doesn’t guarantee you any particular outcome. And so what drives a democracy, what decides what it becomes or what it stays is that open communicative culture, the way its members learn about the world, debate it, and ultimately persuade each other to change it or not change it…
  • Sean Illing: But [Neil Postman] argues that print has these pretty clear biases because of the nature of the medium. It’s slower, it’s more deliberative, more demanding. It’s linear, it’s the domain of ideas, of abstract thought. Or at least it tends toward that. I think some of these distinctions that these ecologists make between different mediums maybe a little too neat. But the core point is right. But TV, unlike print, is not a medium that encourages rational thinking. It is all about action and imagery… 
  • Sean Illing: Yeah, we go through this — sort of the book is kind of moving through history, lurching from one revolution in media to another. And we start in and Athens and Rome, both societies that were formed in large part by speech and rhetoric, but also upended by them. And there’s a printing press where that gets us to the birth of newspapers and books and helps give us the enlightenment, but it also unleashes a devastating religious war that devours the continent…And the thing again about all those revolutions is not that the technologies are good or bad. It’s just that they’re disruptive in very unpredictable ways. Sometimes you get the Arab Spring and sometimes you get Pizzagate. But they changed the way a society thinks and orients itself. It changes the way a society relates to each other and to the world. And that has far-reaching complications. It changes us and by extension it has to change our politics…
  • Sean Illing: …Twitter has been I think bad for me personally. I mean, I’ve joked that I’m the worst version of myself on Twitter. But the thing about Twitter, and I’m very curious what you think about this, is that to be on there is to give yourself over to the incentives driving it, attention, virality, the impulse to perform. And I think that’s bad. It blinkers our intuitions, it creates anxieties and pressures that bleed into our work, certainly mine. And for individual writers, it’s kind of become a platform for just personal brand promotion, and that carries its own kinds of perverse incentives…
  • Sean Illing: We’re trying to think of democracy as a communitive culture. We think of democracy as a decision to open up the public sphere and let people speak, think and decide what ought to be done. So in that sense, it is a culture of open communication. And thinking of it as a culture rather than a constellation of practices or institutions is not a pedantic or academic thing. We’re trying to emphasize the open-endedness of it, the fact that it’s always in a state of becoming. And the fact that you can say that a state is Democratic and the fact that doesn’t necessarily tell you how it’s governed is pretty instructive, right? I mean, it’s not for nothing that fascism has only ever emerged out of Democratic societies. There’s something about the collision of mass media and mass politics that made fascism possible…
  • Ezra Klein: So tell me then about what you call “the paradox of democracy.”

Sean Illing: Well, it’s the fact that the very thing that makes democracy possible, which is wide open, free expression that while that’s a condition of democracy, it can also be hijacked and turned against it. And that’s what fascism is. So the thing that makes it possible is also the thing that threatens it from within. And that tension or that paradox is baked into the structure of democracy if you see it in that way. There’s just no transcending that, right? If you’re going to open up society, then you’re opening the culture up to all manner of persuasion, all manner of rhetoric, the inspirational leaders and the bullshit artists and the demagogues and any other manner of bad faith actor you can imagine. It is a free-for-all in that way… 

  • Sean Illing: But if you take media ecology seriously, then you start with a media environment and then notice how it favors certain kinds of rhetorical appeals or incentivize a certain styles of communication. And then notice how that in turn, influences public opinion, right?… 
  • Sean Illing: I think a lot of the people who are deeply worried about cancel culture don’t reflect enough on what’s actually happening on these bigger questions we’re talking about here. Again, it feels very suffocating, but it really is just I think a culture of free speech doing what a culture of free speech does, unleashing lots of different voices, lots of different opinions, lots of different styles of communication, lots of disputes about where the lines are. And it’s playing itself out…
  • Sean Illing: Tools like the wheel or the hammer are used instrumentally. Those are extensions of our feet and hands, extensions of our physical capabilities. But McLuhan insisted that electronic media is an extension of our nervous system. So our ability to experience what is happening isn’t limited by our bodies. We can know what’s happening anywhere, everywhere, all the time. And I think his point was that our brains weren’t equipped to deal with this much stimuli, this much information. And whatever cognitive tools we developed over time to deal with information, to organize our experience in the world, we’re going to be totally overwhelmed by the electric revolution…