Moral obligations of media firms in the United States might be seen as obligations of any firm, and as special obligations of a media firm.

Drawing upon some works of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls is a way to find obligations of firms in general. Particular obligations of a media firm might be drawn from the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, behind which rises the human right to liberty in the call for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the Declaration of Independence.

Kant's practical imperative asked us to "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." Rawls asked that we enact justice as fairness. Fairness is understood in ordinary language as honesty and impartiality. Firms might benefit individuals and their societies through just behavior.

Underlying this view of firms is a proposition that firms have political functions as well as economic ones. Political functions include being fair and just to the public at large, employees, customers, owners, creditors, suppliers, and competitors, and others. Economic functions are the ordinary ones of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which lead among other things to return or loss on investment.

An obligation of media firms is to give special attention and other resources to broadening the competition of ideas. That obligation stems from the First Amendment, which offers to all the freedoms of speech and press. Media firms, more than many others, have an obligation to exercise, defend, and promote that protection through offering a diversity of ideas.

Economic functions of just media firms appear to be secondary to political functions. If a media firm is unable to continue to perform its normal economic functions because of its commitment to fairness as both a firm and a media firm, it has an obligation to choose a course such as combination with another firm rather than abandon its ethical commitment.

The apparent fragility of just or fair media firms suggests that these firms be regulated optimally by being regulated minimally. Self-regulation is to be preferred over social regulation, and social regulation over regulation by the state. Because the state has power to compel by force, if needed, and by taxation, licensing, and other means, social regulation through favorable or unfavorable opinion of society or through voluntary economic reward or punishment is to be preferred. Self-regulation is to be preferred over social regulation or regulation by the state, for self-regulation is most direct, simplest, and least costly to all.

A ladder of ownership preferences puts ownership of media firms by the state on the lowest rung, social ownership higher, and private ownership highest. The state seems least qualified to operate a media firm because the state has ultimate physical power to command and control. Social ownership is higher because it has no power to compel by force. Private ownership is on the highest rung of preference because it has no power to compel by force and has full incentive to serve the larger publics while not ignoring the smaller ones.

Some obligations of just media firms are to treat persons as ends, and not merely as means; to be just to all; and especially to exercise, defend, and promote the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution by offering diverse ideas.

Kenneth Harwood currently is an Adjunct Professor of Communication in the University of California, Santa Barbara, following a long career in several other universities. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005(17:1),p.10.