Freezing the Press


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

Delivered at the Fourth Accounting Institute Banquet, Hotel Pennsylvania, New York City, October 20, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 50-52.

TRAVEL across the United States today and you will see tons upon tons of scrap metal in every city, town and village freely donated by the people to the war effort. From its origin to its fulfillment, this Victory Salvage Plan was a newspaper idea.

In the sale of Defense and War Bonds, in the Red Cross Roll Call, in the U.S.O. campaign, in the mobilization for Civil Defense and Community Chests, in the distribution of information in regard to rationing, ceiling and other regulations, the newspapers have performed a public service as a privilege and a duty. Wherever our soldiers, sailors and marines are in training, wherever they have been fighting, newspaper correspondents have been with them, wherever they have been permitted, and their reports and observations have been an invaluable factor in the building of civilian morale and national unity.

The next time you hear anyone say that the newspapers have lost their influence, you may truthfully reply that in one of the great crises of our history the newspapers voluntarily, enthusiastically and loyally mobilized public sentiment in support of every war project.

Nevertheless, in recent years and now almost daily during the war, the newspapers have been subjected to a freezing process by our Government.

The process of freezing began during the last war. The restrictive laws of 1917 and 1918 were not repealed in time of peace. From NRA to Lend-Lease the process of freezing the press continued. Since Pearl Harbor it has been accelerated. Today the authority of the Government to control the press is absolute, although called voluntary.

Because this situation has a profound and portentous bearing on the freedom of public opinion, every newspaper reader must be concerned, because he is directly involved.

Throughout the last war I served as a newspaper correspondent in Europe and Asia. Thereafter, I worked and lived abroad, traveling in the course of a quarter of a century to upwards of forty countries in Africa and Latin America, as well as in Europe and Asia.

Long before the outbreak of this global war, I had some global experience, and the essence of the lessons I learned may be expressed in a sentence: There are periods in a lifetime when it is more difficult to live for your country than it would be to risk your life for your country. You and I are living in such a time today. You and I who cannot serve the armed forces have the inescapable obligation of maintaining on the home front the institutions, the ideals, the political principles and the ethical and moral standards which our soldiers, sailors, and marines are fighting to defend. We cannot meet that obligation unless we too are prepared to fight at home to maintain the American way of life and to defend it, when it is under attack by groups and organizations determined to bring about a domestic revolution when our existence as an independent nation depends upon the outcome of this global war.

Every reader of what has been the free press of our country knows that there is not a single day of respite from propaganda advocating fundamental changes in the American way of life. All of these are pressed upon public attention by the same method of creating fear, advocating haste and demanding acceptance. The justification presented for every change is that each one is necessary to win the war. With a combination of faith and fear, the people acquiesce, and this process goes on day by day and week by week.

Under the cloak of war emergency, the American way of life is being profoundly changed by law, by directives, by executive orders, by judicial decisions, by consent decrees andby accomplished facts which the people are told about after the events. This domestic revolution is going on while millions of young men are under arms and orders, while they cannot express their opinions or register approval or dissent.

We who remain at home share a literally stupendous responsibility for what we are permitting to happen while these men are away, at sea, or on the several battle lines.

Who among us would not prefer to face our foreign enemies and risk our lives to meet them in battle? There are indeed times when it is more difficult to live for one's country than it would be to face injury, captivity, or death.

Every reader of the printed word is aware of these changes. Is there an equal awareness of our individual and mutual responsibilities and obligations?

There is an old story of a man who spent his life in the publishing industry. After years of labor he and his wife decided to build a new home. For one year they lived at the seashore, another year in the mountains. Finally, they selected a homesite and when they were asked why they preferred the mountains to the sea the publisher replied: "We cannot change the sea or the tide. We can change the shape of the mountain. We can build roads, cut down the forest and plant new trees if we wish. We can change a mountain."

Similarly, economic and social conditions can be changed. Transition from one situation to another is inevitable, but when our Republic was founded the people claimed and proclaimed certain inalienable rights, which included not only freedom of speech but the freedom to speak, not only freedom of the press but the freedom to print. We have rightly considered these rights as changeless as the sea and tides.

What is happening in the United States today is that a domestic revolution is not only changing economic and social conditions and standards; it is also uprooting and razing traditional and cherished educational and political principles, rights and ideals upon which our American way of life depends for sustenance and existence. Under the stress and emergency of war, we are freezing incomes, wages, rents. We are establishing ceilings, restrictions, and limitations on our economic and social customs and practices. These changes the people are accepting with remarkable fortitude and good spirit. Today the leaders of our domestic revolution are equally determined to freeze the Bill of Rights. They are determined to substitute freezing the press for freedom of the press. And every reader of every newspaper, pamphlet, periodical and book has a stake in that issue, because freezing the press means freezing public opinion and political action.

If those who are determined to freeze the press succeed in achieving their objective, we may have freedom of speech, but be deprived of freedom to speak, because the facilities and instrumentalities of communication will be frozen for the duration and only those governmental officials and agencies beyond censorship control will be able to use them.

In a time like this it is even difficult to speak publicly. It is difficult, because there is so little tolerance even for the expression of a conscientious concern. It would be far easier to fight a known enemy abroad. We can understand well the urge of men in the armed services in Washington to seek service on the battle lines. But all of us cannot leave the home front. Therefore, we must be loyal to the men in the army, navy and marines who are fighting abroad to defend the American way of life. We must fight for our principles, our rights and our convictions at home, even if, in that fight, the opponent is our own government.

Sometimes I think that we need most of all in our own country today, more conscientious objectors—not conscientious objectors to military service, but men and women with conscientious allegiance to our inalienable rights, menand women who are prepared and unafraid to register their objections to the freezing of public speech, the freezing of public assembly of the press and of the radio. Conventions of professional and business men are being canceled, as county and state fairs were, because of the military burdens upon railroad, the rationing of gas and rubber. Voluntarily, these congresses, parliaments and meetings are being dispensed with and the benefits which come from these democratic gatherings are out for the duration. Are we aware of the fact that this procedure is freezing that provision of the Bill of Rights which guarantees freedom of assembly?

Ever since the beginning of this war there have been restrictions and limitations on the freedom of the press, so that today the press is frozen by law, by censorship, by directives, by decrees and by executive action. In all governmental affairs the press is free only to report what is officially released. Editors and publishers are free to comment and to criticize. They are not free to investigate the war effort or to crusade and to report their findings. Insofar as this relates to the war, no one has a right to object, because no journalist would purposely or even involuntarily give aid and comfort to an enemy. But the recent law suit filed by the Department of Justice in New York against The Associated Press and 1275 daily newspapers throughout the country has no justification whatever by the necessities of war. The object of that suit is not to preserve the freedom of the press but to freeze the press into a new mold, not during the war but in perpetuity.

The directors and members of The Associated Press have announced that they will fight the charges in the courts, because these journalists know that their reputations, their integrity, their obligations and responsibilities to the public are involved. And these attributes and convictions are the life of journalism, the life of the freedom to print.

What is the new mold designed for freezing the press? It is the mold of governmental control. If The Associated Press is frozen into this mold, every other press association and newspaper, every periodical and book, every pamphlet and speech, every radio and forum will be frozen in similar molds, and the Bill of Rights and the Atlantic Charter will be relics of aspirations and ideals, not solemn covenants for the use and progress of humanity.

Before the Department of Justice filed this civil action, the directors of The Associated Press were threatened officially with a criminal suit. And every director voted to stand trial rather than participate in a consent decree, which was the alternative offered. On that occasion these journalists were confronted by the actuality of a far reaching decision of conscience. They could have bought immunity by the simple expedient of accepting the Government's order. Instead they met their public obligation to defend the freedom to print on our home front. In a very real sense they had to be prepared to give their lives in defense of their cause, because conviction on criminal charges would have made them liable to imprisonment. Far more serious than imprisonment in the mind of a journalist would have been the acceptance of an order which would have made editors and publishers unfaithful to their sacred trust as custodians of the freedom of the press.

Every newspaper reader has a stake in this law suit. Every newspaper reader has a stake in the ideals and principles, in the inalienable rights of the American way of life. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and more vigorously since then, some government officials have been pressing upon us a domestic revolution designed to freeze our inalienable rights and those of millions of soldiers, sailors and marines who cannot be here to defend themselves. Upon us today rests the grave responsibility and obligation of maintaining our freedom at home by resisting every attempt to freeze our freedoms in an un-American, alien and unbreakable mold.

We who remain on the home front throughout this global war must be as prepared and as willing to live for our country as our soldiers, sailors and marines are prepared and willing to give their lives to defend it. Freedom is a living, growing plant of democracy. Freeze it and it will die.