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Published:June 2nd, 2008 00:35 EST
Freedom's Watchdog: The Press in the United States

Freedom's Watchdog: The Press in the United States

By SOP newswire

When Edward R. Murrow, in his landmark broadcast, highlighted notorious personal attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the veteran CBS newsman was adding his own voice to two centuries of American tradition upholding freedom of the press. McCarthy`s inquiries against people suspected of being Communists or supporting Communism - called "witchhunts" by opponents - were contributing to an atmosphere of fear and to what Murrow and others felt was a serious threat to cherished civil liberties the Precedent and the Law Protecting a Free Press

The John Peter Zenger case of 1735 set the precedent for American press freedom as a watchdog against oppressive government. In the case, a Colonial jury broke with English legal tradition which outlawed as "seditious libel" all published criticism of the government - including true and accurate criticism - that might cause public unrest. The jury decided that Zenger, a printer, could not be guilty of sedition because his newspaper`s criticism of the British government was, in fact, true. This finding established truth as a legal defense for charges of libel, and would eventually become part of the foundation of U.S. libel law.

The American Revolutionary War ( ) was triggered in no small part by the Stamp Act of 1765, intended to tax independent newspapers out of existence. In an era when news traveled no faster than horses could run or ships could sail, when opinions could be broadcast only as loud as a man could shout, newspapers were the primary way for revolutionaries and royalists to get their messages to a wider audience.

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ( ) (1791), elegant in its simplicity, enshrines one of the most basic beliefs of the nation: the importance of the press in nurturing democratic government. To this day, in the United States and in all other free and democratic nations, these convictions continue to apply: a free and independent press provides people with the information they need to play an active role in the government and life of their country, and people must have the freedom to speak ( ) their mind and to publish criticism of their government.

The First Amendment itself was the result of a lengthy political debate conducted through newspapers, and its authors knew exactly what kind of freedom they were letting loose. The press of their day was highly opinionated, partisan, and filled with vicious personal attacks.

Political Polarization, From Washington to Lincoln

"He that is not for us is against us," bannered the Gazette of the United States, backing the government of the first president, George Washington ( ) (1789-97). The Gazette proclaimed that its mission was to oppose the "raging madness" of those who criticized administration policies, including "politicians" such as Thomas Jefferson.

The opposition printed lively newspapers of its own, writing that President Washington was "reveling in neo-monarchical ceremony" and accusing him of "incompetent soldiering," according to University of Chicago First Amendment law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, whose 2004 book Perilous Times details the history of American free speech in time of war.

Thomas Jefferson strongly supported press freedom, but he also had few kind words for the newspapers themselves and repeatedly called for press reforms and balanced reporting. "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," Jefferson once wrote, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Yet, he also said, "I deplore ... the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them."

Decades later, political polarization during the Civil War ( ) resulted in a barrage of press criticism against President Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, an editorial in the Chicago Times said Union soldiers were "indignant at the imbecility that has devoted them to slaughter for purposes with which they have no sympathy." When an angry Union general closed down the newspaper, Lincoln ordered it reopened.

The Government and the Press

U.S. law twice has sought formally to limit freedom of the press. The Sedition Act of 1798 ( ) was passed during the presidency of John Adams, when the nation was on the brink of war with France. It was aimed at opposition newspapers but had a built-in expiration date that elapsed when Jefferson was elected in 1800. Passed during World War I ( ), the Sedition Act of 1918 prohibited "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the U.S. government or Congress. The act was repealed in 1921. An accompanying law, the Espionage Act of 1917, remains in force and makes it illegal to interfere with the armed forces or to aid an enemy of the United States. During World War I, the U.S. postmaster general interpreted the provision broadly to prohibit anti-war newspapers from being delivered through the mail.

In 1971, during the Vietnam War ( ), the U.S. government obtained on national security grounds a federal court order to halt the New York Times from its ongoing publication of the Pentagon Papers. These documents, prepared by the Department of Defense, analyzed the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and had been classified as top secret. When the Washington Post then began publishing the same material, a judge in a different federal district refused to halt their publication. Within days the case reached the Supreme Court ( ), which ruled in favor of the newspapers. The Court ( ) found that the First Amendment`s guarantee of free speech meant that the government could not exercise "prior restraint" on the content newspapers chose to publish.

Today, while government officials sometimes seek to prevent sensitive information from being discovered by the press, there are no legal restraints on newspapers or broadcasters on national security grounds. Foreign visitors often are surprised to discover that more than 100 accredited journalists freely roam the corridors of the Pentagon in search of news, unescorted even in time of war.

Modern broadcast journalism ( ) began in the 1920s and 1930s and came of age in the 1950s, when television began to take over from printed papers as the primary source of news for most Americans. Government broadcast licenses at that time required fair and balanced reporting through the so-called Fairness Doctrine. Murrow`s March 9, 1954, report on McCarthy carried such impact because it broke the standard format of telling both sides of a story in the same broadcast and instead highlighted McCarthy`s tactics. McCarthy responded at a later date on the Murrow program: Those who saw it thought he looked ill at ease and did not help his cause. The broadcast also displayed the new power of television. Many newspapers had been reporting and questioning McCarthy`s tactics, but it was Murrow`s "See It Now" March 9 broadcast that brought McCarthy`s actions into America`s living rooms.

"It is well to remember that freedom through the press is the thing that comes first," Murrow told the New York Herald Tribune in 1958, stressing his own belief in a great democratic institution ( ). "Most of us probably feel we couldn`t be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free."


By Vince Crawley