How Free Is The American Press


By CARL W. ACKERMAN, Dean, School of Journalism, Columbia University

Delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D. C., April 18, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 541-543

PRIOR to our meeting this morning we received the "reassurance" of President Roosevelt who stated in his letter to Mr. Wallace "that free speech and a free press are still in the possession of the people of the United States." The President's personal statement constitutes one of a very few victories for a free press in the recent history of journalism. Such a pronouncement, at this time, should prove to newspaper editors, that eternal vigilance is a better form of security than editorial complacency. If this letter is a victory for the press, there is reason for us to continue our vigilance because the tempo of world events, the chainof crises abroad, the emotional nature of public sentiment under the impact of war and the critical attitude of mind of certain high government officials toward newspaper publishers and the reporting and interpretation of Washington news, may change the status quo, overnight.

Whatever our individual views may be in regard to foreign affairs, we are face to face with the inescapable fact that the President and the government of the United States are in the war even though this country is not actually at war. Therefore, the question of keeping American news lines open must be considered realistically, dispassionately and constructively because there is a difference between the assurance thatwe still possess our constitutional rights and that, ipso facto,news channels will remain free and open.

Before recommending a course of action to this meetingmay I ask: "How free is the American press today and howwide open are American news channels?"

Press dispatches from London last week brought to our attention one outstanding fact confronting newspapers and press associations since the passage of the Lend-Lease bill.

"A more vigorous voluntary self-censorship must be imposed in the United States, its was stated, to stop leakage of information on which secrecy is considered essential to Britain's war effort. The final decision whether a voluntary restraint will suffice or some kind of government censorship will be necessary must rest with the United States, it was stressed. There was a general feeling that censorship by law is unlikely so long as the United States remains a nonbelligerent."

Since H. R. 1776 was added to the statute books of the United States, American journalists are no longer free agents insofar as certain war news is concerned. Our future course of action, under the law, must be adjusted to the commitments of our government to those foreign powers we are obliged to aid under the Lend-Lease act.

The bulk of live news today is about foreign affairs including national defense. All news dispatches, photographs, radio broadcasts and other forms of communications from Europe, Africa, and Asia are censored. Therefore the American press today is not free to obtain or distribute any information from abroad which is not controlled or approved by the respective belligerents.

Under the circumstances of control, restraint, intimation, criticism, expulsion fears and threats, bombing of offices and separated families, American Correspondents abroad have been performing their tasks heroically as men and admirably as journalists. Nevertheless their news sources are not open and their lines of communication are controlled even if they are free agents of a free press their news lines are open only because of the vigilance as well as the resourcefulness of the correspondents, as Mr. Pinkley has just recalled.

Similarly Washington correspondents are not as free to obtain information and report it as they were in time of peace. News in Washington is supervised by news releases and "off the record" conferences. Factually all Washington news relating to foreign affairs and to national defense is essentially the same, every day, in all newspapers. The variations appear in volume, interpretation, emphasis and timing. (Incidentally Washington correspondents ask more pertinent news questions than visiting editors.)

Insofar as foreign affairs and national defense are concerned American news lines from Washington are not completely open and news lines from abroad are completely controlled. Furthermore, the trend is toward more drastic control even in light of assurances that the American press is free, at this time. Read the statement by Secretary Knox the day Mr. Wallace read the President's letter!

As we continue our consideration of keeping news channels open during a momentous world war, we should ask ourselves: "What is the position of the newspaper industry and the profession of journalism at this time?"

No newspaper publisher is as free today as Joseph Pulitzer was when he published two great metropolitan newspapers when he endowed a School of Journalism and established the Pulitzer prizes to recognize public service and achievement. Radio broadcasting competition, taxation of inheritances, expanding bank and insurance company ownership of newspaper properties, the Wage and Hour Act, Social Security, taxation, lack of elasticity in budgets, mobilization of industry for national defense making appropriations for nationaladvertising by defense industries subject to governmental consent and potential control, the forthcoming mobilization of ships and transportation facilities which will affect news print supplies and priority; the increasing power of labor unions and demands for representation in management combined with the power and the prestige of President Roosevelt are factors which already limit the freedom of newspaper publishers. These factors definitely limit the ability of many daily newspapers to keep their news lines open, or increase their coverage of national defense news.

Furthermore during the past two months the President of the United States has publicly questioned the ethics, morals and patriotism of the press and an official agency of the government has described the A. N. P. A. as an enemy of the government. A survey of the government's position reveals a united and a coordinated front under the leadership of President Roosevelt. Repeated attacks upon newspaper publishers have profoundly influenced the public attitude toward many daily newspapers and placed all newspaper owners who disagree with or criticise the President or his administration on the gridiron of public opinion. For ten years this gridiron has been polished by corporate entities labeled "newspaper publishers." In light of the President's letter are these attacks to be discontinued?

Today, as we consider how to keep American news lines open, we are confronted by the President's power and authority as well as his prestige. Under the Espionage and Trading-with-the-Enemy Acts of 1917 and 1918 the President has the authority to establish a censorship "when the United States is at war." Under Sections 3 and 4 of the Act, which is still on the statute books, the Postmaster General "upon evidence satisfactory to him" may declare offending newspapers non-mailable. Under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 the President has the authority to establish censorship of military, naval and national defense news whenever he deems it to be necessary or desirable to our national safety and security. At the time of the Malaya incident Secretary Knox proved that my interpretation was correct when he issued a public statement basing his request to "all press, radio and photographic agencies to refrain from reporting in any form, the movements or presence of British men-of-war in this country for any purpose whatsoever," upon the authority of the government under the Lend-Lease Act. Even though the people still possess the freedom of the press this does not mean that news is to be freely accessible to the press.

In addition to these statutes there is the bill H. R. 3368 authorizing expenditures for the Office of Government Reports, which was passed by the House by a vote of 201 to 144. When this bill becomes a law, the President will have an official agency of government to implement his authority if the war emergencies should require a change of policy overnight and he decides that it is desirable or necessary to exercise his power and authority over news. Surely editors know, even if the public is not so aware, that the debate on the Lend-Lease Bill was a decisive legislative battle and that actual warfare by American forces may come about at any time.

If we intend to meet our obligations to society, to the government and to our profession as representatives of a free press this is the time for us to be realistic. We cannot escape the fact that under the Espionage and Trading-with-the-Enemy Acts of 1917 and 1918, and under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, the government of the United States has the legal power and authority to take such action to control American News channels, as the President may deem desirable or necessary in defense of the United States. That the government has this great potential power and authority over the press is maybe in part due to the fact that for decades too many editors and publishers have considered editorialpronouncements as having the effect of law, because of their influence on public opinion, while the government has included in its strategy, the field of law. Today the free press is actually encircled by laws, regulations and requests.

If it is our intention to be realistic we will recognize that we cannot keep American news lines open by fighting the United States government in time of war. During this "chain of crises" we cannot change the laws or claim immunity, exemptions, or privileges. The government has the power, the authority and the prestige to establish a censorship in time of war, to control news print supplies and to influence or determine the amount of national advertising under defense contracts. Freedom of the press today is nine-tenths vigilance and one-tenth law.

Furthermore, national unity in time of a sequence of international crises cannot be achieved if high officials of the government continue to condemn the press by sniping at incidents or individuals. If reader faith in the publications which distribute news is destroyed, government censorship and control of every newspaper, all press associations and every broadcaster will not suffice to persuade or regiment the American public opinion. Even if freedom of the press today is nine-tenths vigilance and one-tenth law the government cannot consume this final tenth of liberty without destroying the whole structure of our democratic institutions. The primary obligation of the press in peace and in war is to serve as an instrumentality of the public, not as an agency of government. The fulfillment of that obligation is the greatest of all the domestic ways and means of insuring the security of our form of government and of keeping news lines open.

Under the circumstances existing today what are we going to do to keep American news lines open and, simultaneously retain that segment of liberty which this nation will need when the time comes to reconstruct the institutions of democracy, but above all, what are we going to do to retain that segment of news liberty essential to the successful consummation of our present foreign policy, to which the United States is committed under the Lend-Lease Act? What are we going to do to retain that segment of liberty essential to the elections of public officials in 1942?

We meet here today to take counsel. Let us not leave until we take action. We must be prepared to establish a new basis for our relations with the government and the people. Fly-by-night agreements and understandings attained bymeans of catch-as-catch-can conferences will lead to confusion, disagreements and war time censorship or control.

One of the constructive plans we should consider to keep American news lines open, is the establishment of some practical means by which this Society may be represented in Washington for the duration of the war. The A. S. N. E. is the only existing agency qualified to represent the profession of journalism. As Mr. Wallace said the President's letter may indeed be one of the historic documents in the history of American journalism. The fact that the President addressed such a communication to this Society is aRecognition of the integrity of editors and their public position as custodians of a constitutional right. Surely in this great national emergency this Society should be prepared to advise with the government so that it will not be necessary at any time in the future for the President to exercise his authority to close any news lines, as he is empowered to do, by law. A plan for representation should be financed by the press so that it may be an independent agency. It should be a clearing house of information on government policies and plans with respect to news. At this April meeting of the A. S. N. E.we should take this constructive action.

Ours is a government of law and order. Under the law the President can act and it is up to us to decide whether wewill cooperate to keep American news lines open or whether we will await complacently the next emergency.

Let us be realists. Look at the tragic fate of the British press today. Over there, where editors and publishers became propagandists overnight, over there where there is censorship, we find disappointment and disillusionment today because the government controlled and censored news. Now, facing a tragic time in the Balkans, and in Egypt and on the Atlantic there is criticism of the press and by the press.

That will happen here, also, if American news lines are completely closed.

In the interest of national morale, national unity and our democratic hopes and aspirations, we must keep news lines open in order to have a free press. To do this in an international emergency will require the best judgment of the best journalists serving in Washington as representatives of that institution of democracy which alone makes liberty articulate. Without the freedom to print no form of liberty is worth a postage stamp.