An Unfettered Press

The American Press


The communications industry is the largest private sector employer in the United States, and the news media make up the largest segment of that industry. Generating information, not just delivering it, is a growth business in the United States.

The American news business used to be a largely domestic enterprise, but no longer. Satellite delivery of 24-hour Cable News Network broadcasts and same-day publication of the Wall Street Journal in Asia and Europe are symptomatic of the U.S. media's new global reach.

Change has occurred in other aspects of the industry besides mere growth, however. American journalism itself has undergone a fundamental transformation in recent years, partly as a result of new technology and partly as a result of the changes in the society it has chosen to mirror. This is not surprising, since change itself is a hallmark of American culture. Whether it chooses to call itself an observer or not, the American news industry is a full-fledged participant in that culture, as well as in its country's democratic political system and its free-market economy.

Protected by government interference by a brief, 200-year-old clause in the American constitution, the press has emerged as the self-appointed monitor of official life, recorder of public events, and even unofficial arbiter of public behavior. The U.S. news industry is also a very big business. Daily newspapers alone generate some $32 billion in advertising revenue a year. Magazines -- and there are more than 11,000 of them -- circulate more copies than there are Americans to read them. Every household has at least three radios, and more than 95 percent own televisions.

Needless to say, the press was not always such a mass medium. The American press started in the 18th century as a small instrument of the literate elite and an unapologetic participant in partisan politics. It was a pamphleteering press, operated by colonial postmasters and opinionated printers. It was not for at least another century that the American press had transformed itself into a fairly nonideological communications instrument, in step with the desires, dynamism, and diversity of the country itself.

But change notwithstanding, the American press has maintained two fundamental constants over the past two centuries: (1) its independence from government, and (2) its reliance on public acceptance -- if not approval -- for its financial survival.

Today, the press is better known as the media -- the plural for "medium" (or means of conveyance) and a reflection of its many components in the electronic age. For it is no longer the written word but sight and sound that dominate the communications industry.

Some recent studies claim that 65 percent of Americans depend on television for their daily diet of news. Nevertheless, that statistic can be misleading because it assumes that television fully satisfies the public's appetite for news. Within that same 65 percent there are many who read newspapers and magazines, listen to the radio, and receive a vast array of newsletters and brochures (much of it unsolicited advertising in their mailboxes). Now they must deal with the newest member of the communications family: the fax. Add the VCR, computerized mail, and something called interactive video, and it is no wonder Americans complain about "no time in the day" to do all the things they want or need to do.

One of the consequences of all these choices is increased competition in the information and advertising marketplace for a person's attention, and this scramble has helped blur the once-clear line between information, entertainment, and commerce. Journalism is no longer quite so easy to define as it was just a decade ago. The American news business is currently facing what the psychiatric profession calls an "identity crisis." This is particularly true in the newspaper industry, which is watching its role (and its revenue) shrink in the electronic age. Connected with this is the concern, as well as some evidence, that America's reading habit is diminishing, largely as a result of television and home video.

But it is highly premature to sound a funeral dirge for the print media. Nearly every American town of any size (10,000 population or more) still has its own newspaper and access to a metropolitan daily as well.

The story of the American press is a complex one, reflecting the pluralism of the country itself. A favored description is diversity. Nevertheless, there are some common threads that bind the media in the United States. Here are some of the most important of its common traits:

  • The American news industry is a business.
  • The industry views itself as a public trust.
  • The news industry is largely unregulated.
  • There is no uniform definition of news.
  • The mainstream press is generally nonideological.
  • America's press tradition is community based.

A Business: The American press and broadcast industries are mostly profit-seeking enterprises and must be financially healthy in order to survive. Only a small percentage are subsidized (less than 20 percent of the broadcast industry, less than 1 percent of the print media). Most depend upon commercial advertising for the bulk of their income -- about 75 percent. In 1991, the media overall earned $130 billion in advertising revenue.

A newspaper owner/publisher is often more a business person than a journalist, while the editor is usually the keeper of the paper's news mission. The publisher, who has the ultimate say in what the product looks like, may not want to carry news that will hurt his business, while the editor in the American system is usually ruled by the dictum: "If it's news, publish it." In the best of the business, the publisher gives the editor ultimate authority over the news.

One of the ways in which the information side of the industry guards itself against the profit motive conflict is by clearly separating the business department from the news department, insulating each from the influence of the other. Recently, however, this traditional insulation has broken down to some degree as newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast news programs have stepped up the fight to gain more "market share."

With so many media outlets and new opportunities for advertisers to reach consumers in other ways, media competition for the advertising dollar is fierce. Critics say this heavily contributes to a policy of pandering to an audience's desires and prurient tastes, rather than to the audience's needs. Proponents of the system say, on the other hand, that attention to one's marketplace is the most effective way of serving the public, and that the role of the press is not to dictate or lecture to its audience.

At the heart of this new devotion to "customer service" is the advent of group ownership and the decline of innercommunity newspaper competition. The result is a more homogenous industry. Most "family-owned" newspapers and local broadcast stations have been purchased by large media conglomerates, and this has adversely affected individuality -- a trend in non-media industries as well.

The overwhelming criterion for success in America's group-owned media is profitability. This, coupled with the fear that Americans are spending less time reading the news, has radically changed the look of the American paper. Following a format started by the Gannett-owned USA Today, most newspapers have introduced more color, eye-catching graphics, shorter stories, and more entertainment news to appeal to the television generation.

This is not to suggest that group ownership and a growing preoccupation with profitability are intrinsically harmful to journalism. As ironic as it may seem, some of the most profitable news organizations are also the best ones because they have used their expanding income to finance better quality coverage. As with other wide-open press systems, the recurrent accusation that the mass media engage in sensationalism in order "to sell newspapers" is a difficult charge to refute. But it is important to note that the American working journalist is not concerned about the employer's profits; getting on the front page, yes, but selling newspapers, no. And what appears in the news columns of today's papers is still largely the purview of working journalists, not business people.

A Public Trust: Treating itself as both a business and a public trust can cause conflict, if not confusion, within the news industry, not to mention in the eyes of the public.

Nevertheless, the "public's right to know" remains at the core of America's free-press philosophy and guides the way it conducts itself, particularly in relations with government. Some call this relationship "adversarial." Others prefer to think of it more benignly as simply a monitoring role, without the influence of opposition.

It is a relationship in which officials try to tell their version of events or avoid publicity altogether, while the press looks for mistakes and fights attempts to suppress information. Largely in response to pressure from the media, a number of state legislatures have passed "sunshine" laws that require government meetings to be held in public. There is also a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives requesting citizens -- usually journalists -- access to government records and documents not classified for security reasons.

In short, the American press enjoys its role as the "watchdog of government." The power that comes from this largely self-appointed role has earned the press the honorific title "the fourth estate," after the three official branches of government (legislative, judicial, and executive). It is also this role that prompted Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of American democracy, to say some 200 years ago that if he had to choose between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he "should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

It was this vision of how a democracy should work that prompted the framers of the U.S. Constitution to make free expression the first amendment of this charter's "Bill of Rights." In reality, the amendment simply said that Congress cannot enact a law infringing free speech or a free press. That brief clause has been the beacon and the shield for the American press for over two centuries, but it is not carved in stone for eternity. It is tested almost daily in the courts, on the streets, and in the corridors of power. So far, this First Amendment protection has withstood these tests.

As part of this protection, the American news media enjoy a certain immunity from official reprisal. It is extremely difficult, for example, for a public official to win a libel suit against the media, because the courts have ruled that government servants must be open to special scrutiny and accountability in a democratic system. American journalists have also won a number of battles to protect the anonymity of news sources from government inquiry, but that war periodically erupts.

One area of continuing uncertainty is that of national security and government secrecy. Historically, American journalists have enjoyed more latitude in this arena than, for example, the British press. Periodically, the federal government warns journalists they can be prosecuted under existing law for compromising American intelligence-gathering efforts. But this has not been seriously enforced or pursued in recent years.

The American media is far more vulnerable to legal action from private citizens, whose right to privacy can be in direct confrontation with what the press calls the public's "right to know." Libel is a civil rather than a criminal offense in the United States, but the enormous size of monetary awards and penalties levied by the courts in recent years has had a "chilling" effect on journalistic enterprise, according to many in the news industry.

The increase in libel suits is just one example of what the American press perceives as diminishing support from the public. A 1991 survey by the American Society of News Editors indicated that more than a quarter of the public polled would not support any protection for the press if the Constitution were voted on today, and less than half of those polled would give it some protection. This is a reflection of negative views of the media as arrogant, biased, inaccurate, and intrusive.

Credibility surveys vary on the question of who the American people trust more -- their press or their government. The answer varies with time and circumstance. Following the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, the press enjoyed a high degree of public confidence. But following scandal coverage that led to a senator's withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race, the press came under sharp criticism on charges of exceeding the bounds of good taste and privacy.

In general, the American press believes that too many citizens confuse media self-interest with the public interest. While journalists worry about these perceptions, they tend to see them more as a public relations challenge than a mandate for significant change.

Unregulated: A serious publication like the New YorkTimes and a fictional tabloid sold in supermarkets both call themselves newspapers. There is no law, no government agency, and no person to say otherwise, because there is no licensing requirement for newspapers to operate and no enforceable definition of what constitutes a legitimate news publication.

In addition, the American news industry and journalistic profession do not regulate themselves in the same sense as the legal and medical professions do, for example. The press does not require minimum standards for membership, does not issue or revoke licenses, and does not regulate professional standards. Rather, each news organization and journalist association adheres to its own codes and standards.

The decision as to whether one is eligible and qualified to be a journalist in America is also solely up to the employer. However, more and more American journalists are graduates of journalism schools, a trend that helps standardize minimum qualifications throughout the country.

Despite the individualism and diversity, there is a remarkable similarity of values and practices in the mainstream news industry. These values stress the importance of public service, impartial reporting, and balance of opinion. Most American newspapers also take pains to separate information from opinion by clearly differentiating the news columns from the editorial section.

Although there is no official regulation of the press, there are unofficial "checks" and "balances" against journalistic excess, both outside and inside the industry. The external checks include libel laws and self-appointed press monitors. Competition also tends to help keep news organizations "honest." The internal checks include the appointment by some newspapers of an "ombudsman" to investigate public complaints, publish self-criticism, and enforce internal standards.

Different from the print media, the broadcast media in the United States require a government (federal) license to operate, because the space-limited airwaves are regarded as public property. There are, however, safeguards against political discrimination in the licensing process, and there have been remarkably few examples of ideological or political bias in issuing or revoking licenses. Government decisions on broadcast licensing are primarily aimed at ensuring competition and diversity.

News: There is no universally accepted definition or set of definitions for "news" in the American media. This is because there is no single role designated for the press. Among the roles the American press has chosen for itself are to inform, to educate, to reform, to entertain, to incite, or all of the above.

Within a broad range of definitions, however, there is general agreement as to what is newsworthy and what is not. The most prevalent characteristics include: the activity of officials and celebrities; government action of any kind; events that are new or bizarre (such as crime and disaster); revelations that are titillating or shocking (involving sex and scandal); and new social trends.

Emphasis on the unusual is a mainstay of modern American journalism, explained by the adage: "If dog bites man, it is not news; if man bites dog, that's news." The public tends to have a love-hate relationship with this definition. On one hand, the audience is entertained or provoked by the news; on the other hand, it is resentful that "normal life" tends to be ignored.

There was a time in America when few would argue with the cantankerous editor who declared: "News is what I say it is." With renewed attention to the desires of the buying public, such editors are hard to find today.

In an effort to be more useful and relevant to the buyer, one of the most successful innovations in recent years has been to enlist the press in the cause of consumer service -- investigating buyer complaints, exposing business fraud, and offering marketplace advice.

Perhaps the greatest source of pride in American journalism is the tradition of investigative reporting, largely aimed at exposing abuses of power. The Pulitzer Prize, the most coveted award in American journalism, is given annually for superior investigation and public service. In recent years, the business community has come under the kind of press scrutiny that was traditionally reserved for government, even though access to business information is usually harder to obtain.

Nonideological: During this century, the mainstream media in the United States have remained largely non-ideological. Very few mass-circulation papers, magazines, and broadcast stations are affiliated with political organizations, parties, or movements. It was not always so, but purposeful nonaffiliation has been a hallmark of the American press for more than a century. This characteristic -- both a source of professional pride and a result of economic self-sufficiency -- is one of the main features that distinguishes the American press from many others around the world.

Although most papers, and some stations, voice a political preference in their editorials, news reporting is generally nonpartisan. Editorial opinion is often based on the merits of an issue, and it is not unusual for these opinions to stray outside a particular ideological framework.

Not everyone believes the American press is free of ideology. Conservative critics say the American news media -- particularly those based in New York and Washington -- reflect a "liberal bias." By that they generally mean that the press is too quick to criticize authority and does not support America's interests.

Left-of-center critics, on the other hand, accuse the press of government cronyism and uncritical reporting about Washington's policies and practices. American journalists tend to feel most comfortable when attacked by both sides of the ideological spectrum. They believe it confirms their impartiality.

In fact, there is a pattern of political preference within the news industry, albeit undeclared. Studies have shown that American reporters tend to be more liberal than editors and program directors, who, in turn, tend to be more liberal than publishers and station owners. These leanings may rarely be visible to the public, but instead are part of the dynamic tension that pervades the American newsroom.

Traditionally, the U.S. government has stayed out of the news business. The only government-owned or -controlled media in the United States are those that broadcast overseas, such as the Voice of America. By law, this service is not allowed to broadcast within the borders of the United States, so most Americans have had only peripheral exposure to it.

There is partial government subsidy of public television and radio in the United States, but safeguards have been built against political interference. As a matter of fact, public broadcasting news programs tend to be more anti-establishment than those of commercial broadcasting and are thus perceived as being more critical of government.

Community Based: The American press has always had a local, rather than a regional or national, character. Although new technology has broadened this horizon considerably, the U.S. media still concentrate to a large degree on the needs and interests of viewers, listeners, and readers in the immediate neighborhood. There are strong economic reasons for this, but it is also a reflection of American provincialism.

The history of the United States is streaked with isolationism, and the press has often reflected this inwardness. Actually, studies have shown that most of the world's press systems tend to be more provincial than international.

One of the most common complaints of visitors to the United States is that there is so little international news relative to America's strong presence around the world. In fact, there is a great deal of international news reaching America, but only a small portion of it is carried by the community-focused mass media. And that portion carried in one community may not be carried in another because of the different interests of the residents.

For example, in Chicago there is a large Polish-American population, and consequently the press there gives prominence to news of Eastern Europe. Since New York has a large Jewish population, Mideast news is big there. Also, much of the international news reaching the States finds its way to specialized publications with limited circulation.

It is true that the American correspondent corps is based in fewer than one-half of the world's nations. Most of the approximately 700 foreign correspondents are clustered in the so-called major capitals. Consequently, most foreign news is reported from and is written under these datelines.

American correspondents are also frequent targets of criticism that they are not fully prepared in language or in background to cover a foreign country in depth. But the days are gone when a reporter was snatched off the police beat to cover an event in some far-off land.

American correspondents are better prepared for their assignments than they were just 10 years ago, although their employers still tend to favor general professional competence over geographic specialization. One reason for this is the requirement of mobility. A reporter in Cairo, for example, has to be ready at a moment's notice to cover a major event anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East because the U.S. correspondent corps is stretched so thinly around the globe.

The size and scope of the overseas press corps is largely an economic issue. To keep one correspondent abroad costs an average of $250,000 a year.

As a general rule, the American press does a fairly thorough job of covering the "big story" overseas, tailored to an American audience. But it gives little attention to the day-to-day news abroad, and it does not cater to the foreign audience.

More than 90 percent of America's daily newspapers depend on the news agencies (wire services), primarily the Associated Press, for news of the world outside their own regions. This is because only a handful of the largest newspapers have their own national and foreign staffs. They include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor. Most of these papers have established their own news services, thus giving newspapers more choices than they have had in the past. This profusion of select services is given as a prime reason that United Press International (UPI) has lost so many customers in recent years.

Some critics of American news coverage abroad detect an inordinate amount of coverage priority given to countries high on Washington's official agenda. But they stand on less firm ground when they argue that coverage and commentary mostly conform to U.S. foreign policy objectives. There are just too many examples to the contrary, stretching from Central America back to Vietnam.

For better or for worse, the American media will remain a strong force in public life. Modern society has become too dependent upon quick and reliable information for it to be otherwise. But the shape of that future remains uncertain.

In just a handful of years, the American news business has already undergone tremendous changes as a result of a transformation in technology, market forces, and public tastes. Too many new players have entered the information field for journalism to ever be the same as it was. But the profession never really stood still for long anyway.

The daily newspaper industry, trying to catch up with the electronic media and other newcomers, seems to have suffered most in this recent transformation. But as long as the American press remains largely immune from government interference, there will always be new opportunities for the industry and new choices for the public.

Whatever happens, it will be the public that decides the future of the American news industry. That, free-press advocates say, is the beauty of the system.


Copyright 1992, by the Center for Foreign Journalists. All rights reserved. For further information contact The Center for Foreign Journalists, 11690-A Sunrise Valley Drive, Reston, Virginia 22091 USA.


Constitutional Protection

The Right To Know

Editing the Washington Post

The Small-Town Newspaper

The Business Side of a Newspaper

Rights and Responsibilities

Libel Law in the United States

Minorities in Journalism

Targeting an Audience

The Electronic Media

The Sweet Sound of Conflict

The Business of Radio Broadcasting

On the Air in Springville

The High-Tech Trib

Electronic Newspapers

The Center for Foreign Journalists

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