Remarks on Freedom of the Press by Dr. William F. Baker

June 2nd, 2008

Dr. William F. Baker gave the following address at the American Academy in Berlin on the 28th:

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

These words were spoken about 2 centuries ago by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States.

Jefferson also spoke other truths very relevant to our times:

Like…

“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.”

Governments almost never like a free press investigating their actions, and the press must remain vigilant. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.

But there is a grave danger to today’s press: an economic one. Classified ads traditionally accounted for about half of a newspaper’s revenue, but in this new cyber age Craig’s List has arisen, offering instant and free classified ads on the Web, where most young readers are anyway.

Also, young people are not reading hardcopy newspapers, and with the shift of audiences from the papers and magazines to the Web, advertising revenue is moving along with it.

Newspaper articles are free on most newspaper sites. The crux of the problem is that newspapers have not found a way to make money on the Web. To survive, they will have to do so.

The survival of newspapers is key to the survival of democracy – they have the resources and expertise to conduct major investigative reporting, on a regular and continuing basis.

In the world of 500 cable TV channels, broadcast network audiences have also shrunk, and their news operations have been cut sharply.

First Amendment freedom has been an evolving concept in the United States. As recently as World War One, anti-government speech was illegal and could result in imprisonment.

In the latter half of the 20th century this freedom broadened, thanks to the courts. In the case New York Times Company vs. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling which established the actual malice standard before press reports could be considered to be defamation and libel, and hence allowed free reporting of the civil rights campaigns in the southern United States. It was and is one of the key decisions supporting freedom of the press in the U.S.

Totalitarian governments of the left and right – be it Stalin’s Russia or Hitler in Germany – have maintained total control over media.

The clich? is that the first casualty during war is the truth. But during the Second World War, the BBC reported Allied defeat after defeat, and did not sugar coat or doctor the reality. What this meant was that when the tide turned, and the Allies started registering victories, the BBC was believed – all around the world.

After Stalin secured control of Eastern Europe, and imposed the iron curtain, and then China went communist in 1949, meaning one third of the world’s population was now under communist control, a red scare swept across America.

A demagogic senator named Joseph McCarthy was able to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Witch-hunts ensued and the careers and lives of thousands in media and the arts were destroyed. The medium that was able to stand up and help bring an end to this tyranny, this dark period in American history, was commercial television. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly of CBS television news presented a half hour on the telecast See It Now, using clips of McCarthy to depict his ruthless strategy and loose tactics intimidating witnesses and ruining innocent people. Finally in 1954 McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and stopped.

The 1960s proved to be the most turbulent American decade since the Civil War. In the U.S. and in Europe and around the world, this was the decade of the counterculture, in which everything establishment was challenged. This decade witnessed the civil rights legislation ending Jim Crow and discrimination in America. Local newspapers in the old South – because of economics and local pressures – were previously unable to report the repression and trampling of rights of black citizens.

But the news wire services – especially Associated Press and United Press International, had no such pressures and were free to expose what was taking place. This in turn notified the major TV networks and nation’s major newspapers which then dispatched reporters and photographers to record and show the nation the unleashing of dogs and of fire hoses on citizens, and see a racist governor blocking the entrance to the halls of education, while proclaiming “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

The Vietnam War brought another of the great showdowns of history to the United States – the press challenging false claims by the federal government. Television network news brought into the living room the horrors of the war – villages being burned down – an arrestee being shot and executed on the spot by a South Vietnamese police official – the hundreds of thousands in Washington protesting the war policy.

Those who supported the war blamed the media – the newspapers which obtained secret documents about the war and printed them – the TV networks showing in living color what was taking place in Vietnam. Some critics said the press brought about the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War. The news organizations were not patriotic some claimed.

The great power of the media was demonstrated again in the 1970s in a different way, with the genocide in Cambodia carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Because television and print media had almost no access to Cambodia, this horror was virtually unknown to the American public and to the West. Only when the movie “The Killing Fields” was released did some come to know about 2 million of Cambodia’s 6 million perishing in this reign of terror spanning 3 years.

The 1980s a new administration – headed by Ronald Reagan – came to Washington. A key tenet of Reagan was to deregulate the media – and take a hands off policy toward the concept of public service by broadcasters, and of trying to regulate concentration of control of media by a few corporations.

The Fairness Doctrine, which required that stations broadcast opposing viewpoints of controversial subjects, was eliminated, leading perhaps to the rise of strident political talk shows.

Broadcast stations more and more have become cash cows for corporate owners, rather than outlets serving the public interest, convenience and necessity, as required under the Communications Act of 1934. The largest of the radio conglomerates, Clear Channel, owns 1,200 of the most powerful FM and AM radio stations in the most important cities.

One station – in New Haven, Connecticut – a news and information AM station,- no longer has a single local news person on the air – news is recorded at a Syracuse, New York station hundreds of miles away, and all talk programs are nationally syndicated, so there is not a single local on-air person at the station, which once boasted local talk shows and a nine-person local news department.

On a national network level, the big three network news operations, ABC, CBS and NBC, have spent the last 3 decades closing down news bureaus around the nation and world. It was because NBC still had a news bureau in Berlin in 1989 that among American networks, NBC had a scoop on one of the biggest stories of the 20th century – the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Just last month, the New York Times reported that CBS, the home of the most celebrated news division in broadcasting, has been in discussions about a deal to outsource some of its news-gathering operations to CNN.

Today finds the news media in America and around the world very much at a crossroads. Coverage of the Iraq War ordered by George W. Bush is very much in question by journalistic critics today.

The press did not play the role of censor of the government, as Jefferson envisioned. Rather, it may have played the role of cheerleader, and has been accused of suppressing views opposing Bush and the war.

The story was told a year ago in the PBS special Buying The War anchored by Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS CUT: “FOUR YEARS AGO THIS SPRING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK LEAVE OF REALITY AND PLUNGED OUR COUNTRY INTO A WAR SO POORLY PLANNED IT SOON TURNED INTO A DISASTER. THE STORY OF HOW HIGH OFFICIALS MISLED THE COUNTRY HAS BEEN TOLD. BUT THEY COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT ON THEIR OWN; THEY NEEDED A COMPLIANT PRESS, TO PASS ON THEIR PROPAGANDA AS NEWS AND CHEER THEM ON.

SINCE THEN THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE HAVE DIED, AND MANY ARE DYING TO THIS DAY. YET THE STORY OF HOW THE MEDIA BOUGHT WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WAS SELLING HAS NOT BEEN TOLD IN DEPTH ON TELEVISION. AS THE WAR RAGES INTO ITS FIFTH YEAR, WE LOOK BACK AT THOSE MONTHS LEADING UP TO THE INVASION, WHEN OUR PRESS LARGELY SURRENDERED ITS INDEPENDENCE AND SKEPTICISM TO JOIN WITH OUR GOVERNMENT IN MARCHING TO WAR.”

Officials in the administration knew they could not say Iraq had a direct role in the 9/11 attacks, but in sentences would repeatedly refer to 9/11 and then to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, so that 70% of the American public believed Iraq was involved in the attacks.

The broadcast networks, the cable news networks, the major newspapers and groups all marched in lockstep and virtually no dissent was reported, in the period leading up to the war. The so-called “Patriot police” would call or show up at any offending news operation.

The patriot or patriotism police referred to in-house censors within the networks or media companies concerned that their network be sufficiently pro-administration, and that it not be exposed to charges of being unpatriotic by a presentation or a spokesperson opposed to the pro-Iraq war policy. The patriotism police might even include an advertiser sponsoring a program on the network. They were described in the Bill Moyers show on the Iraq War and the media.

When 100,000 anti-war demonstrators protested in Washington in October 2002, the Washington Post covered it by putting a picture on the front of the metro section, with no story on page one. Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Post, says there were about 140 front-page stories in the Post making the Bush administration’s case for war, between August 2002 and March 2003 when the invasion began.

Bill Moyers said that when Democrats did go against the grain, they were denounced by the partisan press and largely ignored by the mainstream press. War opponent Senator Ted Kennedy was given just 36 words in the Washington Post.

Phil Donahue, who had the one show on MSNBC featuring war opponents, was told he must have two pro-administration guests for every single dissenter to the administration. Donahue was cancelled 22 days short of the invasion of Iraq and an internal NBC memo said “Donahue presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, describes the atmosphere of intimidation:

DAN RATHER CUT: “FEAR IS IN EVERY NEWSROOM IN THE COUNTRY. AND FEAR OF WHAT? WELL IT’S THE FEAR – IT’S A COMBINATION OF: IF YOU DON’T GO ALONG TO GET ALONG, YOU’RE GOING TO GET THE REPUTATION OF BEING A TROUBLEMAKER. THERE’S ALSO THE FEAR THAT, YOU KNOW, PARTICULARLY IN NETWORKS, THEY’VE BECOME HUGE, INTERNATIONAL CONGLOMERATES. THEY HAVE BIG NEEDS, LEGISLATIVE NEEDS, REPERTORY NEEDS IN WASHINGTON. NOBODY HAS TO SEND YOU A MEMO TO TELL YOU THAT’S THE CASE. YOU KNOW, AND THAT PUTS A SEED IN YOUR MIND OF WELL, IF YOU STICK YOUR NECK OUT, IF YOU TAKE THE RISK OF GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN WITH YOUR REPORTING, IS ANYBODY GOING TO BACK YOU UP?”

The Knight Ridder newspaper chain was the only major mainstream American news organization to question the run-up to the war at the time, but its influence was minimal, since the stories were not printed in New York or Washington. John Walcott of Knight Ridder speaks:

JOHN WALCOTT CUT: ‘YOU KNOW, WE’RE SENDING YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN, AND NOWADAYS NOT SO YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN, TO RISK THEIR LIVES. AND EVERYONE WANTS TO BE BEHIND THEM. THE QUESTION FOR US IN JOURNALISM IS, ARE WE REALLY BEHIND THEM WHEN WE FAIL TO DO OUR JOBS? IS THAT REALLY THE KIND OF SUPPORT THAT THEY DESERVE? OR ARE WE REALLY, IN THE LONG RUN, SERVING THEM BETTER BY ASKING THESE HARD QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT WE’VE ASKED THEM TO DO?”

There are no simple answers – there is no book with the answers to difficult journalistic questions, what to do in each situation. It’s not just a question of caving in to fear – it’s also the hollowing out of newsrooms across the U.S. Reporting is expensive, and there are no longer the resources to maintain large staffs of reporters.

Some questions now confronting journalism in the United States and around the world include:

How can newspapers become profitable on the Internet? Stories are free, but if they charge for the stories, almost nobody will read their sites.

Why are print newspapers continuing to flourish in Canada and in Europe and Asia while they are declining dramatically in the U.S.”

The press is the government’s censor, but should there be exceptions in time of war? The New York Times knew all the details of the D-Day landing in June 1944, but did not publish them ahead-of-time, so the other side would not be tipped off, and there would be a disaster for the landing Allied troops.

What about television news, which has become in many ways the most powerful medium. Today, instead of reporters in capitals all around the world, there are pundits on the air offering their opinions of what might happen. How can these bureaus of reporters be reopened? Bureaus are expensive – especially foreign ones.

At one time newspapers such as the Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun maintained foreign bureaus, but they have all been closed. Only the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post maintain small bureaus overseas.

What about concentration of control of broadcast and print media in the U.S., where there are fewer owners?

Can consolidation be reversed? It was way back in 1943 when NBC was ordered to divest its second network, the Blue Network, which became ABC.

How can newspapers make up for Craig’s List and their lost classified ad revenue, which traditionally brought in half of the papers’ revenue?

When journalists do exhibit courage, it is often not rewarded by bosses at the time. When CBS broadcast the See It Now episode on Senator McCarthy, a top CBS executive told Fred Friendly the next day, “You may have cost us our broadcast licenses.” But of course today Friendly and Edward R.Murrow are revered for their courage.

A year ago, it was reported that during the previous decade, eleven hundred journalists had been killed worldwide, doing their jobs.

What about the Internet? It continues to siphon viewers from TV, listeners from broadcast radio, and readers from newspapers and magazines. Along with them is a huge chunk of advertising. Can a way be found to direct some of this revenue to support major professional news organizations, as in decades past?

Can Americans still count on the press to keep their leaders from abusing power? Has the ostensibly independent press become little more than a mouthpiece for government, completely abandoning its role as “censor” of government power?

Up to the present most news organizations operate as for-profit businesses. Can this continue? Should there be a new model?

US MEDIA 2008

U.S. Households 112,800,000
Cable Households 48,130,200 (87% of total)
Satellite TV Households 29,553,600 (26% of total)
Total Broadcast advertising (2007) $22.43 billion (+2% from 2006)
Total Cable TV advertising (2007) $17.84 billion (+26% from 2006)
Spot Network TV advertising (2007) $15.59 billion (-10.2% from 2006)
Syndication (2007) $4.17 billion (-1.5%)

All media advertising (2007) $148.99 billion (+.2%)
Internet display advertising (2007) $11.31 billion
Consumer magazines (2007) $24.43 billion (+7%)
Outdoor ad revenues (2007) $4.02 billion (+4.9%)
Newspapers ad revenues in 2007, down 5.6% from 2006
Radio ad revenues in 2007, down 2.5% from 2006

Total ad revenue on the Internet totaled $21.2 billion in 2007

Time spent with Internet per week per person, 32.7 hours
Time spent with TV per week per person, 16.4 hours
Time spent per day by children watching TV (per child) 3 to 4 hours
Time spent listening to radio per person, 3 hours and 3 minutes per weekday

Read a newspaper total: 43% in 2006, 50% in 1996 (-7%)
Read a newspaper yesterday 18 to 29 year olds: 29% in 2006, 29% in 1996
Read a newspaper yesterday 30 to 49 year olds: 40% in 2006, 49% in 1996 (-9%)
Read a newspaper yesterday 50 to 64 year olds: 50% in 2006, 58% in 1996 (-8%)
Read a newspaper yesterday 65 and older: 58% in 2006, 70% in 1996 (-12%)

Numbers of stations/newspapers:
4,776 AM stations (all licensed to be commercial)
6,309 Commercial FM stations
2,892 Non-commercial FM stations
831 Low Power FM stations (all non-commercial)
TOTAL Radio stations: 14,808

1,180 Commercial TV stations
363 Non-commercial TV stations
2,173 Low Power commercial TV stations

1,452 Daily newspapers
6,704 Weekly newspapers

SOURCES: International Data Corp., Radio Advertising Bureau, TV Week, PEW
Center, FCC, Editor & Publisher, Journalism.org, PricewaterhouseCoopers