[This article originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of Nieman Reports.]
The Commission set out to answer the question: Is the freedom of the press in danger? Its answer to the question is: Yes. It concludes that the freedom of the press is in danger for three reasons:
First, the importance of the press to the people has greatly increased withthe development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. At the same time the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their opinions and ideas through the press.
Second, the few who are able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society.
Third, those who direct the machinery of the press have engaged from time to time in practices which the society condemns and which, if continued, it will inevitably undertake to regulate or control.
When an instrument of prime importance to all the people is available to a small minority of the people only, and when it is employed by that small minority in such a way as not to supply the people with the service they require, the freedom of the minority in the employment of that instrument is in danger.
This danger, in the case of the freedom of the press, is in part the consequence of the economic structure of the press, in part the consequence of the industrial organization of modern society, and in part the result of the failure of the directors of the press to recognize the press needs of a modern nation and to estimate and accept the responsibilities which those needs impose upon them.
We do not believe the problem is one to which a simple solution can be found. Government action might cure the ills of freedom of the press but only at the risk of killing the freedom in the process.
The real remedies lie in a greater assumption of responsibility by the press itself and in the action of an informed people to induce the press to see its responsibilities and to accept them.
The problem is of peculiar importance to this generation. The relation of the modern press to modern society is a new and unfamiliar relation.
The modern press is a new phenomenon. It can facilitate thought or thwart progress. It can debase and vulgarize mankind. It can endanger peace. It can do it accidentally, in a fit of absence of mind. Its scope and power are increasing.
These great new agencies of mass communication can spread lies faster and farther than our forefathers dreamed when they enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
With the means of self-destruction now at their disposal, men must live, if they are to live at all, by self-restraint and mutual understanding. They get their picture of one another through the press. If the press is inflammatory, sensational and irresponsible, it and its freedom will go down in the universal catastrophe. On the other hand, it can help create a new world community by giving men everywhere knowledge of the world and one another, by prompting comprehension and appreciation of the goals of a free society.
Freedom for What?
Modern society requires great agencies of mass communication. Breaking them up is a different thing from breaking up an oil monopoly. Breaking them up may destroy a service the people require.
But these agencies must control themselves or be controlled.
Freedom of the press is essential to political liberty. Freedom of discussion is a necessary condition to a free society.
The press is not free if those who operate it act as though they had the privilege to be deaf to ideas which freedom of speech has brought to public attention.
Freedom of expression does not include the right to lie.
The principle of freedom of the press is not intended to render society supine before possible new developments of misuse of the immense powers of the contemporary press.
The aim of those who sponsored the First Amendment was to prevent the government from interfering with expression. The authors of our political system saw that a free society could not exist without free communication.
They were justified in thinking that freedom of the press would be effectively exercised. In their day anybody with anything to say had little difficulty getting it published. Presses were cheap.
It was not supposed that any one newspaper could represent all the conflicting views regarding public issues.
A Press Revolution
This country has gone through a communications revolution. The press has become big business. There is a marked reduction in the number of units relative to the population.
The right of free public expression has therefore lost its earlier reality. The owners of the press determine which persons, which facts, which versions of the facts, and which ideas shall reach the public.
The press has become a vital necessity in the transaction of the public business of a continental area. A new era of public responsibility for the press has arrived. The variety of sources of news and opinion is limited. The insistence of the citizen’s need has increased.
It becomes an imperative question whether the performance of the press can any longer be left to the unregulated initiative of those who manage it.
Their right to utter their opinions must remain intact. But the service of news acquires a new importance. The citizen also has a right to adequate and uncontaminated mental food, and he is under a duty to get it.
The freedom of the press can remain the right of those who publish it only if it incorporates into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest.
Freedom of the press means freedom of and freedom for. The press must, if it is to be wholly free, know and overcome any biases incident to its own economic composition, its concentration, and its pyramided organization.
The press must also be accountable. It must know that its faults and errors have ceased to be private vagaries and have become public dangers. The voice of the press, so far as by a drift toward monopoly it tends to become exclusive in its wisdom and observation, deprives other voices of a hearing and the public of their contribution.
Freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom.
What the Public Needs of the Press
The requirements of a free society:
- A truthful, meaningful account of the day’s events;
- A forum for exchange of comment;
- A means of protecting group opinion and attitudes to one another;
- A method of presenting and clarifying the goods and values of the society;
- A way of reaching every member of the society.
Especially in international events the press has a responsibility to report them in such a way that they can be understood. It is necessary to report the truth about the fact.
In domestic news, too, the account of an isolated fact, however accurate in itself, may be misleading and in effect untrue.
A flow of information and interpretation is needed.
The great agencies of mass communication should regard themselves as common carriers of public discussion.
The giant units can and should assume the duty of publishing significant ideas contrary to their own, as a matter of objective reporting. Their control over the various ways of reaching the ear of America is such that if they do not publish ideas which differ from their own, those ideas will never reach the ear of America. If that happens one of the chief reasons for the freedom which these giants claim disappears.
Identification of source of facts and opinions is necessary to a free society.
Concentration of Control
The outstanding fact about the communication industry is that the number of its units has declined.
In many places the small press has been completely extinguished. The great cities have three or four papers but most places have only one. The opportunities for initiating new ventures are strictly limited.
Only one out of 12 of the cities with daily papers have competing dailies. In 10 states there are no competing dailies. Forty percent of daily circulation is non-competitive.
A few big houses own the largest magazines. Drastic concentration obtains in women’s magazines: six have nine-tenths of the circulation.
Books show a broader competitive area.
In radio the networks lie outside regulation. Four networks grossed nearly half radio’s $400,000,000 in 1945. Eight hundred of 1000 stations are in chains.
Five movie companies own the best movie theaters.
Newspaper chains: 375 dailies25 percent are in chains; small chains increased as Hearst and Scripps Howard shrank. One hundred seventy-five places have combination. Ninety-two percent of places have only one paper.
In 100 places the only newspaper owner owns also the only radio station. This creates a local monopoly of local news.
Great newspaper-radio ownership is increasing. One-third of radio stations are owned by the press.
“The Boiler Plate King,” John H. Perry, provides insides of 3,000 out of 10,000 weeklies (survivors of 26,000 in 1900).
Three press services serve 99 4/5 percent of all daily circulation.
Syndicates are related to press associations and chains.
Besides economics and technology, other forces work toward monopoly. Personal forces exaggerated drives for power and profit have tended to promote monopoly. The means used vary from economic pressure to violence.
The Hearst-McCormick newsstand war was a factor in the gang warfare that has distressed Chicago ever since.
Monopolistic practices and high costs have made it hard for new ventures to enter the press field.
Has the press by becoming big business lost its representative character and developed a common bias of the large investor and employer?
Economics calls for an omnibus product for a mass audience, something for everybody. The newspaper is as much a medium of entertainment and advertising as of news.
News of public affairs is even lower in radio0 in some; 2-10 percent on some network stations.
Public affairs are often a minor part of mass media shaped to a mass audience.
The Newspaper ‘Game’
So “news” has a special meaning. Its criteria are recency or freshness, proximity, combat, human interest, novelty.
Such criteria limit accuracy and significance.
The game played in press rooms often seems childish and sometimes cruel.
Unauthorized “scoops” at the end of the war produced much distrust of these news sources. They led to doubts about the value and legitimacy of a game that could be played with such irresponsibility and heartlessness.
The press emphasizes the exceptional rather than the representative; the sensational rather than the significant. The press is preoccupied with these incidents to such an extent that the citizen is not supplied the information and discussion he needs to discharge his responsibilities to the community.
Illustration: the San Francisco Conference.
So completely was the task of manufacturing suspense performed that when an acceptable charter was signed the effect on newspaper readers was one of incredulous surprise.
The Press Is Big Business
The press owner is a big business man. “He has the country club complex. He and his editors get the unconscious arrogance of conscious wealth.”W.A. White.
Evidence of advertising domination is not impressive in strong papers.
Incident: The American Press Association, advertising representative of 4,000 weeklies and small dailies, placed a U.S. Steel policy ad on the steel strike of 1945 in 1,400 papers.
Its letters to the papers in which it place the ad urged: “This is your chance to show the steel people what the rural press can do for them.”
Who Runs Radio?
Radio advertising is concentrated. Five companies accounted for nearly one-quarter network income in 1945. A dozen and a half agencies place contracts and prepare programs. The great consumer industries which in 1945 gave the networks three-quarters of their income determine what the American people shall hear on the air.
The result is such a mixture of advertising with the rest of the program that one cannot be listened to without the other.
Sales talk should be separated from material which is not advertising. Public discussion should not be manufactured by a central authority and “sold” to the public.
The Failure of the Press
Criticism of the press in the press is banned by a kind of unwritten law. If the press is to overcome its own shortcomings this practice of refraining from criticism of the press should be abandoned.
Our society needs an accurate, truthful account of the day’s events. We need a marketplace for the exchange of comment and criticism. We need to clarify the aims and ideals of our country and every other.
These needs are not being met. The news is twisted by emphasis on freshness, on the novel and sensational, by the personal interests of the owners, and by pressure groups.
Too much of the regular output of the press consists of a miscellaneous succession of stories and images which have no relation to the typical lives of real people anywhere. The result is meaninglessness, flatness, distortion and the perpetuation of misunderstanding.
When we look at the press as a whole we must conclude that it is not meeting the needs of our society.
This failure of the press is the greatest danger to its freedom.
Self-Regulation is Absent
The motion picture code is enforced. It sets standards of acceptability, not responsibility.
Movies go farthest in accommodation to pressure groups. This may thwart development of documentary films.
Radio stations are licensed. They must operate in the public interest. But the FCC cannot censure programs. The NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] code is not enforced.
The FCC now says unless broadcasters deal with over commercialization, government may be forced to act. So far it has produced little from the broadcasters except outraged cries about freedom of speech.
In newspapers there is no enforcement of codes.
The Guild does not seek professional standards but recognizes the right of publishers to print anything.
Professional standards are ineffective in the press because the professional works for an owner. His is the responsibility.
Schools of journalism have not accepted the obligation to set standards of the profession, as have law and medical schools. Most devote themselves to vocational training. That is not what a journalist most needs. He needs the broadest, most liberal education.
What Can Be Done?
The problem will not be solved by laws or government action.
But no democracy will infinitely allow concentration of private power irresponsible and strong enough to thwart the democratic aspirations of the people.
If the giant media are irresponsible, not even the First Amendment will protect their freedom from government control. The Amendment will be amended.
If the press does not become accountable by its own motion, the power of government will be used, as a last resort, to force it to be so.
There is nothing to prevent government participating in mass communication. It is not dangerous to freedom of press for it to do so.
Government should facilitate new ventures.
It should keep channels open stop monopoly invoke antitrust laws to keep competition.
It should see that the public gets benefits of concentration.
Radio service should be supplied to the whole country either by the radio industry or by government. We prefer the former.
Redress of libels should be expedited.
State anti-syndicalism laws should be repealed.
Government has a duty to inform the public. If the press cannot or will not carry reporting about government policies and purposes, the government should publish itself.
What the Press Can Do
The press is a private business but affected by a public interest.
The press has an obligation to elevate rather than degrade public interests.
The press itself should assume responsibility of service the public needs.
We suggest the press look upon itself as performing a public service of a professional kind.
We recommend that mass communication accept the responsibility of a common carrier of information and discussion.
The press should finance attempts to provide service of more diversity and quality for tastes above the level of its mass appeal.
The press should engage in vigorous mutual criticism.
The press should increase the competence of its staff.
The quality of the press depends in large part upon the capacity and independence of the working members in the lower ranks.
Adequate compensation, adequate recognition, and adequate contracts seem to us the indispensable prerequisite for the development of professional personnel.
We should suppose three-year contracts would be sufficient to guarantee the independence which the worker in the press must have if he is to play his part as a responsible member of the profession.
The type of educational experience provided for working journalists by the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard seems to us to deserve extension, if not through private philanthropy, then with the financial aid of the press itself.
Radio Should Control Advertisers
We recommend that the radio industry take control of its programs and that it treat advertising as it is treated by the best newspapers. Radio cannot become a respectable agency of communication as long as it is controlled by the advertisers.
No newspaper would call itself respectable which was dominated by its advertisers and which published advertising information and discussion so mixed together that the reader could not tell them apart. The public should not be forced to continue to take its radio fare from the manufacturers of soap, cosmetics, cigarettes, soft drinks and packaged goods.
What Can Be Done By the Public?
We are not in favor of a revolt and hope less drastic means of improving the press may be employed.
We have the impression that the American people do not realize what has happened to them. They are not aware that the communications revolution has taken place. They do not appreciate the tremendous power which the new instruments and new organization of the press place in the hands of a few men. They have not yet understood how far the performance of the press falls short of the requirements of a free society in the world today. The principal object of our report is to make these points clear.
Nonprofit institutions should help supply the variety, quantity and quality of press service required by the American people.
In radio and documentary films, chains of libraries, colleges and churches should put before the public the best thought of America and make the present radio programs look as silly as many of them are.
Schools of journalism should not deprive their students of a liberal education.
For Press Appraisal
We recommend the establishment of a new and independent agency to appraise and report annually upon the performance of the press.
It should be created by gifts, given a 10-year trial to:
- Help define standards of press performance.
- Point out inadequacy of press service in some areas and concentration in others.
- Make inquiries in areas where minority groups are excluded from reasonable access to channels of communication.
- Make inquiry abroad regarding the picture of American life given by the American press.
- Investigation of press lying, especially on public issues.
- Make appraisal of tendencies of press.
- Make appraisal of government action on communication.
- Encourage centers of advanced study in field of communication.
- Encourage projects to meet needs of special audiences.
These are methods by which the press may become accountable and hence remain free.
Make Journalism a Profession
The Commission was disturbed by finding that many able reporters and editorial writers displayed frustration the feeling that they were not allowed to do the kind of work which their professional ideals demanded. A continuation of this disturbing situation will prevent the press from assuming effective responsibility toward society. As remedies, we have urged the press to use every means that can be devised to increase the competence and independence of the staff. In many different ways the rank and file of the press should be made to constitute a genuine profession.
The Commission on the Freedom of the Press:
Robert M. Hutchins
Zechariah Chafee, Jr.
John M. Clark
William E. Hocking
Harold D. Lasswell
Charles E. Merriam
Arthur M. Schlesinger
George N. Shuster