United States | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

United States

United States

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

16

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

6

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

4

The United States continued to grapple in 2005 with the question of the right of legal authorities to compel journalists to reveal confidential sources or provide access to research material in the course of criminal investigations. At the same time, the administration of President George W. Bush was found to have violated federal law by providing monetary grants to journalists in return for favorable coverage of domestic policy initiatives. Freedom of the press has long been a core value of America's democratic system. Both the U.S. Constitution and laws adopted by individual states protect journalistic freedom. Through the years, several decisions by the Supreme Court have reinforced press freedom and have, in particular, made it difficult for public officials to bring libel suits against journalists. In addition, the standard for bringing prosecution against a publication or website for hate speech is much higher in the United States than in Europe or other societies.

During 2005, the controversy over demands by prosecutors that reporters turn over their notes or audiotapes in the course of criminal cases came to a head with the jailing of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter. Miller had refused to testify before a federal grand jury in a case involving the possibly illegal leaking of the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, Valerie Plame Wilson (usually referred to as Valerie Plame). Miller, who was not covering the story about Ms. Plame, served 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify after being released from a confidentiality agreement by her source, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. In the same case, Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper was threatened with jail time for initially refusing to testify about his source. He eventually testified after his source, Libby, granted him a waiver.

The Miller case provoked members of Congress to propose legislation that would shield reporters from being compelled to reveal confidential sources. Although there was considerable bipartisan support for the legislation, little progress toward adoption was made. Thirty-two states have enacted "shield laws" that grant journalists the right to withhold information in some cases at the state level. The debate over the need for protection of journalists from prosecution intensified after a federal judge held Walter Pincus, a reporter for The Washington Post, in contempt for refusing to reveal his sources in a lawsuit brought against the government by Wen Ho Lee. Lee is a former nuclear scientist who was charged with espionage, a case that was later dropped. Lee accused government officials of leaking his personnel files to the press. Four other reporters were also cited for contempt in the Lee case.

Reporters who have sought information from government officials have usually won the support of the courts, especially at the federal level. After September 11, 2001, the legal environment shifted somewhat when the administration increased the volume of classified information. Nonetheless, the press and civil liberties organizations have obtained access to a number of government documents in covering stories about the abuse of detained terrorism suspects, counterterrorism policy, and Iraq war strategy. In 2005, The New York Times obtained a number of sensitive internal government memos in preparing a series of exposés about the administration's program of eavesdropping without warrants on telephone and internet messages between terrorist suspects in the United States and their contacts abroad.

The Bush administration itself drew sharp criticism for having paid several political commentators who supported certain domestic policy initiatives through grants from agencies of the federal government. A report by federal auditors concluded that the administration had disseminated "covert propaganda" by paying columnist Armstrong Williams through grants from the Department of Education for columns that praised Bush's education policies. It was also revealed that the Department of Defense had hired a public relations firm to place stories with media outlets in Iraq that were written by U.S. military officers and depicted conditions in the country in a favorable light.

Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and often polarized. The press itself is frequently a source of controversy, with conservatives and supporters of the Bush administration accusing the media of antiadministration bias and liberals accusing the press of timidity in coverage of administration misdeeds. One such episode involved coverage of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that devastated the city of New Orleans and sections of several southern states. In a change from the post-9/11 media environment, initial press accounts were sharply critical of the administration's response and spoke of widespread crime, looting, and mayhem in New Orleans. Conservatives contended that many of the more lurid stories were exaggerated or based on false information. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency responsible for dealing with the effects of the disaster, sought to restrict coverage by instructing journalists and news outlets to refrain from publishing photographs of dead bodies. Journalists were also reportedly harassed by local law enforcement authorities, particularly while trying to cover the police's own abuse of criminal suspects.

In another ideologically tinged controversy, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) stepped down amid charges that he had attempted to politicize the agency. A report by the CPB's inspector general charged that former chairman Kenneth Tomlinson had violated the agency's code of nonpartisanship through personnel and program decisions. Specifically, the inspector general's report accused Tomlinson of steering a conservative-oriented talk show on to the CPB's schedule and had used a political test in the hiring of a former Republican Party official as the agency's president. Under U.S. law, radio and television airwaves are considered public property and are leased to private stations, which determine content. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with administering licenses and reviewing content to ensure that it complies with federal limits on indecent or offensive materials. On several occasions, the FCC has issued fines against radio and television outlets for what the agency deemed acts of indecency. Legislation to expand the FCC's power to cover private cable and satellite stations and to increase maximum fines for indecent broadcasts was still under review at year's end but is expected to pass in 2006.

The United States is home to more than 1,500 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships. However, the primary form of news dissemination in the country is through television news networks both cable and satellite, like CNN, Fox News, and CBS. Media concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. This controversy has intensified in recent years following the purchase of media entities, especially television networks, by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. At the same time, diversity of the U.S. media has expanded substantially with the mushrooming of cable television and, especially, the internet. The number and influence of internet sites and blogs have expanded greatly in recent years, and blogs have proven to be an important source of information in certain political controversies. Blogs devoted to public policy questions often lean to the highly partisan, and while their proliferation adds to the richness of press diversity, it also contributes to ideological polarization. On two occasions, the U.S. Congress has tried to impose censorship legislation on internet content, but both attempts were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, proposals are pending to make internet service providers liable for removing allegedly illegal or improper content. Nearly 69 percent of the population was documented as having internet access at year's end.