Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
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The press remains aggressive in covering scandals involving government figures, including high-ranking members of the Bush administration, and in its coverage of the Iraq war. At the same time, the United States continued to face a controversy over growing demands by prosecutors that journalists reveal confidential sources or provide access to research material in the course of criminal investigations.
Press freedom enjoys a strong foundation of legal protection in the federal Constitution, in state and federal laws, and in court decisions. The Supreme Court has repeatedly issued decisions that take an expansive view of freedom of expression and of the press. In particular, court decisions have given broad protection to the press from libel or defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures. An exception to judicial support for press freedom involves demands by prosecutors for information gathered by reporters in the course of their journalistic investigations, including material from confidential sources. In the most high-profile recent case, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in a case involving the leaking of the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, Valerie Plame. In 2006, it was revealed that the special prosecutor for the Plame case knew early on that the source for the leak was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In the end, no one was charged with leaking the information; the only person charged in the case was the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was indicted on allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice. As a result of the high-profile nature of the Plame case and the actual imprisonment of Miller, many within the media are concerned that this has put a chill on investigative reporting by making potential sources more reluctant to come forward and confide in journalists who may no longer be able to ensure their anonymity. In 2005, 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 at the time and more than 30 states already have such “shield laws,” no legislative progress had been made at the federal level by the end of the year.
Judges continued to take an aggressive stance against journalists who refused to cooperate with the prosecution. In two unrelated cases in California, journalists faced contempt charges during 2006. In September, a judge ordered two journalists for the San Francisco Chronicle to jail in a criminal case relating to allegations of steroid use by professional athletes after they published a story based on leaked grand jury testimony. Their appeal was still pending at year’s end, and neither reporter served time in jail. In a separate incident, blogger and freelance journalist Josh Wolf was imprisoned in August after refusing to hand over a videotape documenting clashes between police and demonstrators during a rally protesting a G8 economic conference held in San Francisco in 2005. After spending a month in prison, Wolf was released—only to return there in September upon losing his appeal. He remained in prison at year’s end. Sami Al-Haj, a Somali-born Al-Jazeera journalist, continued to be held without charge by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay. He was originally arrested in Pakistan in 2001 in the initial push for results in the war on terror. However, Al-Haj’s lawyer contends that his detention is based on the U.S. government’s belief that a link exists between Al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda and that no evidence has been produced against his client.
In recent years, reporters from several prominent newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, have published a series of investigative articles that have called into question various aspects of the Bush administration’s war on terror and its conduct in the Iraq war. In June, several newspapers published articles revealing that the administration had gained access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication in search of material that might involve money transfers by terrorists. Publication of the articles drew sharp criticism from President Bush and members of Congress and a threat by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that The New York Times could face criminal prosecutions and potentially charges of treason. In 2005, the Bush administration was criticized 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’s efforts amounted to “covert propaganda.” However, there were no further reports of such incidents in 2006.
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 anti-administration bias and liberals accusing the press of timidity in coverage of administration misdeeds. The appearance of enhanced polarization is driven to some degree by the growing influence of blog sites, many of which are aggressively partisan. Nonetheless, most American newspapers make a serious effort to keep a wall of separation between news reporting, commentary, and editorials. Ironically, the trend toward fewer family-owned newspapers and more newspapers under corporate control has contributed to a less partisan, if blander, editorial tone.
The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio, an entity funded partly by the government and partly by private contributions, enjoys a substantial audience. In 2005, 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. Tomlinson remains chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that administers America’s foreign broadcasting services. In August, the inspector general for the State Department criticized Tomlinson for having improperly hired a friend on the public BBG payroll. 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 material. On several occasions, the FCC has issued fines against radio and television outlets for what the agency deemed acts of indecency.
The United States is home to more than 1,500 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships. Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious newspapers have encountered financial difficulties in recent years, owing mainly to competition from the internet. Newspapers have instituted staff reductions and, in some cases, have cut back on their coverage of national and international news (and on maintaining foreign news bureaus) in favor of a more local focus. Many predict a major transformation of the newspaper business in coming years, with some newspapers closing and others focused increasingly on bolstering their electronic editions. 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 somewhat 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 though 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 legislation that could lead to censorship of internet content, but both attempts were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. In a positive test of internet independence in November, a California state supreme court ruled in a defamation case that internet service providers could not be held responsible for the content of their customers’ posts. In 2006, the internet was used by more than 210 million Americans, roughly 70 percent of the nation’s population.