America in context

Freedom's Watchdog: The Press in the U.S.

Ethics and Law

"It is well to remember that freedom through the press is the thing that comes first," Murrow told the New York Herald Tribune in 1958, stressing his own belief in a great democratic institution. "Most of us probably feel we couldn't be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free."

When Edward R. Murrow, in his landmark broadcast, highlighted notorious personal attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the veteran CBS newsman was adding his own voice to two centuries of American tradition upholding freedom of the press. McCarthys inquiries against people suspected of being Communists or supporting Communism — called "witchhunts" by opponents — were contributing to an atmosphere of fear and to what Murrow and others felt was a serious threat to cherished civil liberties.

The Precedent and the Law Protecting a Free Press

The John Peter Zenger case of 1735 set the precedent for American press freedom as a watchdog against oppressive government. In the case, a Colonial jury broke with English legal tradition which outlawed as "seditious libel" all published criticism of the government — including true and accurate criticism — that might cause public unrest. The jury decided that Zenger, a printer, could not be guilty of sedition because his newspapers criticism of the British government was, in fact, true. This finding established truth as a legal defense for charges of libel, and would eventually become part of the foundation of U.S. libel law.

The American Revolutionary War was triggered in no small part by the Stamp Act of 1765, intended to tax independent newspapers out of existence. In an era when news traveled no faster than horses could run or ships could sail, when opinions could be broadcast only as loud as a man could shout, newspapers were the primary way for revolutionaries and royalists to get their messages to a wider audience.

"Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1791), elegant in its simplicity, enshrines one of the most basic beliefs of the nation: the importance of the press in nurturing democratic government. To this day, in the United States and in all other free and democratic nations, these convictions continue to apply: a free and independent press provides people with the information they need to play an active role in the government and life of their country, and people must have the freedom to speak their mind and to publish criticism of their government.

The First Amendment itself was the result of a lengthy political debate conducted through newspapers, and its authors knew exactly what kind of freedom they were letting loose. The press of their day was highly opinionated, partisan, and filled with vicious personal attacks.

Political Polarization, From Washington to Lincoln

"He that is not for us is against us," bannered the Gazette of the United States, backing the government of the first president, George Washington (1789-97). The Gazette proclaimed that its mission was to oppose the "raging madness" of those who criticized administration policies, including "politicians" such as Thomas Jefferson.

The opposition printed lively newspapers of its own, writing that President Washington was "reveling in neo-monarchical ceremony" and accusing him of "incompetent soldiering," according to University of Chicago First Amendment law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, whose 2004 book Perilous Times details the history of American free speech in time of war.

Thomas Jefferson strongly supported press freedom, but he also had few kind words for the newspapers themselves and repeatedly called for press reforms and balanced reporting. "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," Jefferson once wrote, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Yet, he also said, "I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them."

Decades later, political polarization during the Civil War resulted in a barrage of press criticism against President Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, an editorial in the Chicago Times said Union soldiers were "indignant at the imbecility that has devoted them to slaughter for purposes with which they have no sympathy." When an angry Union general closed down the newspaper, Lincoln ordered it reopened.

The Government and the Press

U.S. law twice has sought formally to limit freedom of the press. The Sedition Act of 1798 was passed during the presidency of John Adams, when the nation was on the brink of war with France. It was aimed at opposition newspapers but had a built-in expiration date that elapsed when Jefferson was elected in 1800. Passed during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 prohibited "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the U.S. government or Congress. The act was repealed in 1921. An accompanying law, the Espionage Act of 1917, remains in force and makes it illegal to interfere with the armed forces or to aid an enemy of the United States. During World War I, the U.S. postmaster general interpreted the provision broadly to prohibit anti-war newspapers from being delivered through the mail.

In 1971, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. government obtained on national security grounds a federal court order to halt the New York Times from its ongoing publication of the Pentagon Papers. These documents, prepared by the Department of Defense, analyzed the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and had been classified as top secret. When the Washington Post then began publishing the same material, a judge in a different federal district refused to halt their publication. Within days the case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the newspapers. The Court found that the First Amendments guarantee of free speech meant that the government could not exercise "prior restraint" on the content newspapers chose to publish.

Today, while government officials sometimes seek to prevent sensitive information from being discovered by the press, there are no legal restraints on newspapers or broadcasters on national security grounds. Foreign visitors often are surprised to discover that more than 100 accredited journalists freely roam the corridors of the Pentagon in search of news, unescorted even in time of war.

Modern broadcast journalism began in the 1920s and 1930s and came of age in the 1950s, when television began to take over from printed papers as the primary source of news for most Americans. Government broadcast licenses at that time required fair and balanced reporting through the so-called Fairness Doctrine. Murrows March 9, 1954, report on McCarthy carried such impact because it broke the standard format of telling both sides of a story in the same broadcast and instead highlighted McCarthys tactics. McCarthy responded at a later date on the Murrow program: Those who saw it thought he looked ill at ease and did not help his cause. The broadcast also displayed the new power of television. Many newspapers had been reporting and questioning McCarthys tactics, but it was Murrows "See It Now" March 9 broadcast that brought McCarthys actions into Americas living rooms.

"It is well to remember that freedom through the press is the thing that comes first," Murrow told the New York Herald Tribune in 1958, stressing his own belief in a great democratic institution. "Most of us probably feel we couldn be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free."

About the Author:

Vince Crawley is a staff writer in the Bureau of International Information Programs of the U.S. Department of State.

Additional Readings

Handbook of Independent Journalism, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs, July 2006. This handbook covers the ins and outs of what every professional journalist should know — from how to research, write, and edit a story to how to write headlines, choose graphics, and select quotes and sound bites.

About America: Edward R. Murrow, Journalism at Its Best, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs, April 2006. The career of Edward R. Murrow, the eminent broadcast journalist, is discussed in this publication as an example of the essential role the free press plays in a democratic society.

A Responsible Press Office: An Insiders Guide  U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs, September 2001. A how-to publication for government leaders and public information officials who want to create an effective mechanism of communication between the media and the government.

An Unfettered Press U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs, April 2001. The media in America...constitutional protections, right-to-know laws, editing and managing newspapers, radio and television broadcasting, electronic newspapers, and libel law.   

Recently on America in context

Writers on America

Writers on AmericaIf we were to ask a contemporary group of American poets, novelists, critics, and historians what it means to be an American writer, the results could illuminate in an interesting way certain America values -- freedom, diversity, democracy -- that may not be well understood in all parts of the world.

Environment: A Book That Changed a Nation

The famous A shy, unassuming scientist and former civil servant, Rachel Carson love of nature and love of writing compelled her in 1962 to publish Silent Spring, the book that awakened environmental consciousness in the American public and led to an unprecedented national effort to safeguard the natural world from chemical destruction.

The American Identity

The United States in 2005: Who We Are Today."American" is an inclusive term and we apply it generously, because becoming an American is about embracing a set of ideals and pursuing a way of life, rather than embodying a particular ethnic group, religion, or culture. And though we are a mobile society, a connection or bond to place, often the neighborhood or town in which we grew up, is important to us.

Philanthropy in the U.S.

U.S. Elections 2008: How the Internet Is Changing the Playing Field

The American Cultural Tapestry

Americans at the Table is a product of the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, but is not the Embassy’s official website. The materials on this site, especially those from sources outside the U.S. Government, should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein or as official U.S. policy. Non-U.S. Government sources available on this site include, but are not limited to, comments, articles, weblogs, forum comments, audio files and links to external websites. Please visit the Embassy website at and if you would like more information on official U.S. policy.
View our disclaimer or privacy notices for more information.