United States | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

United States

United States

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Free

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

17

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

8

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

4

Press freedom is vibrant in the United States, with intense coverage devoted to scandals involving government figures, the more controversial dimensions of the “war on terror,” and the Iraq war. While the United States has faced controversy over demands by prosecutors that journalists reveal confidential sources or provide access to research material in the course of criminal investigations, there was progress in 2007 toward the enactment of “press shield” legislation that would give journalists qualified protection against prosecution in such cases, which continue to be brought against members of the news media. The year was also notable for the adoption of a law strengthening federal freedom of information policies. Despite these advancements, there was a slight increase in physical attacks on the press, including one murder and several cases of intimidation.

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, although libel remains a criminal offense in a number of states. The administration of President George W. Bush had come under criticism for what some said were restrictions on the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act. At the end of 2007, however, Bush signed into law a revised Freedom of Information Act that will expedite the document request process and provide mediation in cases where a federal agency is reluctant to release material.

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. Josh Wolf, a “freelance blogger,” was released in April 2007 after having spent 226 days in federal custody for refusing to hand over videotapes he recorded of a July 2005 demonstration in San Francisco and later posted on his blog. His period of detention made Wolf the longest-imprisoned journalist in U.S. history. In another case, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, were each sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2006 for refusing to reveal the identity of a confidential source in a scandal involving steroid use by prominent athletes. The case against the journalists was dismissed in March 2007 when the source, a defense attorney, acknowledged his role in leaking grand jury testimony to the journalists; neither journalist spent time in prison, and the attorney was subsequently sentenced to two and a half years in prison for giving these documents to the journalists. As a result of these and other cases, Congress took up a bill that would grant journalists a qualified right not to reveal news sources in federal cases. The measure, called the Free Flow of Information Act, passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin in October. It would allow journalists to withhold sources except in cases where the testimony would be critical to the outcome of a trial, in cases of potential terrorism, or where the testimony or information would fulfill a “compelling public interest.” The measure excludes from coverage amateur bloggers and journalism students. The legislation was still pending at year’s end. More than 30 states already have such “shield laws.”

Federal authorities continued to detain two foreign journalists in 2007. Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera, 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. American military authorities also continued to imprison Bilal Hussein, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press reporter who was arrested in Iraq in 2006 on security-related charges. Officials cited alleged involvement with Iraqi insurgents, although no details have been forthcoming.

In a notable change from 2006, there were several reported instances of violence, or threats of violence, against journalists during the year, most of which targeted reporters or editors of media with a predominantly minority or immigrant audience. In the most egregious case, Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post in California, was murdered on the street in August, apparently in response to articles he had published that alleged the involvement of a local Muslim bakery in criminal activities. A bakery worker was arrested and confessed to the killing but later retracted his confession. A reporter for the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr., was the object of hate calls and intimidating e-mails for articles about race, crime, and media bias. In Los Angeles, three reporters, one of whom suffered a broken wrist from the incident, were physically assaulted by police while they were covering an immigration rights rally. The Los Angeles Police Department later issued an apology, and investigations are scheduled to be completed in 2008. In New York City, editors of two Urdu-language newspapers, the Pakistan Post and the Urdu Times, were threatened in May, and copies of the newspapers were seized from distribution points and destroyed by nonstate actors.

Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and in some cases excessively partisan. 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. 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.

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 of the Iraq war. Articles have included details of prisoner abuse in Iraq, extraordinary renditions and “ghost prisoners,” allegations of prisoner abuse in Guantanamo, the treatment of Iraq war veterans at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and the American government’s unauthorized access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication in search of material that might involve money transfers by terrorists. Some of these articles have drawn sharp criticism from President Bush and other administration officials, as well as threats to bring criminal charges against the New York Times. By year’s end, no charges had been brought against any newspaper.

The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR), an entity funded partly by the government and partly by private contributions, enjoys a substantial audience. From time to time, conservatives have accused NPR of a liberal bias in its coverage, and Republicans have occasionally tried to reduce funding for the network or eliminate it altogether. More recently, controversy over NPR has abated and congressional funding has been approved by substantial margins. By 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 1,400 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships. The number of dailies has declined gradually over the past two decades, and many of the country’s largest and most prestigious newspapers have encountered financial difficulties in recent years, owing mainly to competition from the internet. Many newspapers have instituted staff reductions, and most have cut back on their coverage of national and international news (particularly through closures of 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 altogether and others focused increasingly on bolstering their electronic editions. However, the primary form of news dissemination in the country is through television networks like Cable News Network, Fox News, NBC, ABC, and CBS, which maintain a consistent audience. Media concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. This problem has intensified in recent years following the purchase of media entities, especially television networks, by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. The FCC regularly considers policies that would lift restrictions on the monopolization of national or local media markets by a limited number of entities, with a particular focus on policies that limit a single corporation’s ownership of both television stations and newspapers in a single local market. In a 2007 ruling, the FCC voted by a narrow margin to lift certain restrictions on television-newspaper cross-ownership in the 20 largest media markets. The action was sharply criticized by some press freedom advocates, and efforts were launched in Congress to reverse the decision.

At the same time, diversity of the U.S. media has expanded with the mushrooming of cable television and the internet. Nearly 72 percent of Americans are internet users, placing the country ninth in the world in an assessment of internet penetration. 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 are often highly partisan, and though their proliferation adds to the richness of press diversity, it also contributes to ideological polarization.