Freedom of the Press
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The release of thousands of classified U.S. government documents by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks in 2010 triggered major debates over the ability of democracies to take legal action against those responsible for leaked information, and against media that publish such information. Also during the year, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed two measures designed to advance global press freedom: a law that requires the State Department to publish an annual report on violations of press freedom around the world, and legislation aimed at combating the phenomenon known as “libel tourism.”
The United States has one of the world’s strongest systems of legal protection for freedom of the press. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the core guarantee of press freedom and freedom of speech. While those rights have come under pressure at various times in the country’s history, the independent court system has repeatedly issued rulings that protect and expand the right of journalists to be free of state control. The courts have also given the press broad protection from libel and defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures, though libel remains a criminal offense in a number of states. In 2010, Obama signed a law that protects journalists, writers, and publishers from defamation judgments in countries where the relevant laws are improperly weighted toward plaintiffs. The measure was meant to shield authors from the phenomenon known as libel tourism, in which plaintiffs, often wealthy rulers or business magnates, choose to file libel suits in the most favorable foreign jurisdictions. The U.S. government has shown increasing interest in global press freedom in recent years. In May, Obama signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, named for a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan in 2003. The law requires the State Department to expand its reporting on press freedom issues around the world and to submit an annual report on the state of media freedom to Congress.
The United States adopted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. While the administration of President George W. Bush had a somewhat restrictive attitude toward the release of classified documents, the Obama administration announced a more expansive interpretation of the law in March 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder 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. Critics have complained that approximately half of federal government agencies have yet to comply with Obama’s executive order. In 2008, Bloomberg News filed a suit against the Federal Reserve after it refused to disclose its records of emergency funds directed to the country’s banks during that year’s financial crisis. A federal district court ruled in favor of Bloomberg News, and an appellate court affirmed the decision in August 2010. The Obama administration dropped its plan to appeal to the Supreme Court and opted to comply with the decision, but the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department continued to delay the full disclosure of the records at year’s end, according to Bloomberg News. In a separate case in May, Defense Department officials barred four journalists from covering military commission proceedings against terrorism suspects in Guantánamo Bay after they published the name of a military employee that had been released previously. The department reinstated their privileges two months later after requiring that they admit to having violated military procedures. The Defense Department issued new guidelines in September to improve transparency regarding the Guantánamo Bay military trials.
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 for contempt of court in recent years rather than hand over material, and others were spared jail time only because the underlying cases ended in settlements. Legislation that would grant journalists a qualified right not to reveal news sources in federal cases passed the House of Representatives in April 2009 but failed to win passage in the Senate. The bill would have allowed journalists to withhold information except in cases where their testimony would be critical to the outcome of a trial, in cases of potential terrorism, or when the information would fulfill a “compelling public interest.” At least 37 states already have laws protecting journalists’ sources, but enactment of a federal law is regarded as unlikely in the wake of the furor over WikiLeaks.
In April 2010, WikiLeaks posted a military video showing a 2007 attack by U.S. forces in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of two journalists. Over the subsequent months, in successive waves of releases channeled through several major newspapers in the United States and Europe, the group disclosed over 75,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, over 400,000 documents related to the Iraq war, and a large number of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an Australian, came under intense criticism from various American political figures, and there were demands that he be apprehended and tried in U.S. court. The Justice Department indicated that it was considering a criminal case, though at year’s end no concrete steps had been taken against Assange. Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning, was arrested on charges of having provided the documents to WikiLeaks. He faced the prospect of a military trial on multiple charges.
Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and increasingly 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 all-news cable television channels and blogs, many of which are aggressively partisan. The growing popularity of the Fox television network, which has an overtly conservative orientation, has also played an important role in media polarization. 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.
The United States occasionally refuses entry to foreign journalists on grounds of involvement with terrorism. In 2010, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris was initially denied a visa to study at Harvard University. The State Department reversed its decision after the visa denial drew protests from press freedom organizations. There were few physical attacks on journalists during 2010. However, Molly Norris, a political cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly, was forced to go into hiding after receiving threats in response to satirical drawings lampooning a cable network’s decision not to air a program that tested the Islamic prohibition on images of the prophet Muhammad.
The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR) and television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which are funded by a combination of government allocations and private contributions, enjoy substantial audiences. Public broadcasting is periodically criticized by Republican legislators for an alleged liberal bias, and there have been efforts to eliminate or greatly reduce government funding for NPR and PBS. Meanwhile, the internationally popular satellite television network Al-Jazeera English (AJE), based in Qatar, has found few cable television companies willing to offer the channel to the U.S. viewers. Media analysts have speculated that cable companies fear losing more subscribers than they would gain by adding AJE, which suffers from a lingering political stigma dating to the Bush administration. 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.
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 and advertising revenues and been forced to cut staff over the past decade. This process was accelerated by the economic downturn that began in late 2008. Traditional broadcast 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 by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. The FCC regularly considers policies that would ease restrictions on a single corporation’s ownership of both television stations and newspapers in a single local market, and in recent years the trend in FCC rulings has been toward a loosening of such restrictions.
The decline in coverage offered by traditional media has been only partly offset by the mushroom growth of cable television and internet journalism. In 2010, for the first time, Americans who identified their primary source of news as the internet outnumbered those who relied most on newspapers. Approximately 79 percent of Americans used the internet in 2010. The number and influence of websites and blogs have grown rapidly over the past decade, and more recently, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have gained prominence as a means of testing and mobilizing public opinion on political and policy issues.