Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the press remained vibrant in the United States during 2009, with vigorous debate over the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of the new president, Barack Obama. However, much of the year’s political coverage took on a polemical tone. This was especially true of commentary on blogs, talk-radio programs, and all-news television networks. Meanwhile, the recent decline in the newspaper industry showed no sign of abating, as the staffs at major newspapers shrunk, foreign bureaus were eliminated, and coverage of national and foreign news was reduced at many outlets. The news departments at several major television networks also suffered staffing cutbacks.
Press freedom has strong foundations in U.S. law. The federal constitution explicitly protects freedom of speech and of the press, and these guarantees have been reinforced by numerous state laws and court decisions. The courts have given the press broad protection from libel and defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures, although libel remains a criminal offense in some states. In 2008, New York State adopted legislation giving writers protection from libel judgments in countries whose laws are inconsistent with the free speech traditions of the United States. The measure was passed after an American author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, was sued in a British court by an individual she discussed in her book on terrorism funding. Several other states subsequently adopted similar laws, and a bill to provide such protection at the federal level was pending in Congress at year’s end.
The administration of former president George W. Bush had come under criticism for a 2003 executive order that enabled the executive branch to delay the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act and to reclassify previously released information. At the end of 2007, however, Bush signed a revised Freedom of Information Act that was intended to expedite the document request process and provide mediation in cases where a federal agency is reluctant to release material. The Obama administration announced a more expansive interpretation of the law in March 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder, in a reversal of the Bush standard, declared that records should be released to the public unless doing so would violate another law or cause foreseeable harm to protected interests including personal privacy and national security. Implementation of the new “presumption of disclosure” policy brought mixed results, with some federal agencies releasing more information to the public than in the past, and other agencies actually adopting more restrictive approaches.
An exception to judicial support for press freedom involves demands by prosecutors for information gathered by reporters, including material from confidential sources. Several journalists have gone to jail on contempt of court charges for refusing to hand over material in recent years, and others were spared jail time only because the cases ended in settlements and the legal proceedings against them were dropped. Federal legislation that would grant journalists a qualified right not to reveal news sources in federal cases passed the House of Representatives in April 2009 and was under consideration by the Senate at year’s end. The bill would allow journalists to withhold sources except in cases where their testimony would be critical to the outcome of a trial, in cases of potential terrorism, or when the testimony or information would fulfill a “compelling public interest.” In May, Texas became the 37th state to adopt a law protecting journalists’ sources.
The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio, which is funded by a combination of government allocations and private contributions, enjoys a substantial audience. 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 commission deemed to be acts of indecency.
In an improvement from previous years, there were few attacks on journalists during 2009. In April, prosecutors secured an indictment against the suspected organizers behind the 2007 murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey in California. The case was still pending at year’s end. In August, Rahman Bunairee, a Voice of America (VOA) reporter fleeing from his homeland of Pakistan after receiving threats due to his reporting on the Taliban, was detained for 10 days by U.S. immigration officials. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Bunairee had a visa that would have allowed him to enter the country legally and start working for VOA. In September, two journalists were detained while covering protests surrounding a meeting of the Group of 20 in Pittsburgh.
Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and in some cases partisan. The press itself is frequently a source of controversy, with conservatives and liberals alike accusing the media of bias. The appearance of enhanced polarization is driven to some degree by the growing influence of blogs, many of which are aggressively partisan. Nonetheless, most U.S. 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, cable television stations that focus on news and public affairs have gained substantial viewership. These outlets are more openly partisan than the three major private television networks.
Traditional media, including print and broadcast outlets, have suffered financially from the increasing popularity of the internet as a news medium. The newspaper industry in the United States is undergoing a period of profound decline and readjustment. There are an estimated 1,400 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships, but even the largest and most prestigious papers have faced falling circulations. Newspaper advertising revenues declined by 26 percent in 2009, a larger drop than in the previous two years. A similar decline has afflicted the leading news magazines, with the six largest suffering an 8 percent drop in revenue in 2009, and even steeper losses for former giants like Time and Newsweek. Major television networks, the primary means of news dissemination in the country, have also suffered major audience declines in recent years, leading to significant reductions in staff and coverage.
Media ownership concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. The 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.The decline in coverage offered by traditional media has been only partially offset by the mushroom growth of cable television and internet journalism. Approximately 76 percent of Americans used the internet in 2009, placing the country among the world leaders in internet penetration. The number and influence of internet sites and blogs have exploded in recent years, and blogs have proven to be an important source of information in many instances. However, as noted above, blogs devoted to public policy questions are often highly partisan and contribute to ideological polarization.