Freedom of the Press

United States

United States

Freedom of the Press 2013

Media freedom remained robust in 2012, a year marked by vibrant if polarized coverage of elections for president and Congress as well as continuing struggles over journalistic access to information related to America’s counterterrorism policies.

The United States has one of the world’s strongest systems of legal protection for media independence. 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 uphold 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 formally remains a criminal offense in a number of states. The state of Colorado repealed its criminal libel law in 2012.

Some 39 states have shield laws that give journalists limited protection from revealing sources or other information gathered in the course of their work. The federal government, however, offers no such protection, and an effort to adopt a federal shield law has effectively been shelved by a combination of congressional inaction and executive opposition. Over the past decade, a series of controversies have emerged over efforts by federal prosecutors to obtain testimony from journalists in high-profile cases, including some in which government workers have been charged with leaking information to the media or lobbyists. Until recently, judges have tended to side with prosecutors and have on occasion held journalists in contempt of court for refusing to identify sources. While many of the cases were initiated by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, the administration of President Barack Obama has proven equally zealous in pursuing government secrecy cases and issuing demands for information from reporters. The best-known case during 2012 involved James Risen, a prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of several books on national security themes. The Justice Department has sought on three occasions to compel Risen to testify about information he may have received from Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, in the course of researching a book about American efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. While the Justice Department continued to seek to compel Risen to testify in 2012, its efforts were restricted by a 2011 federal court ruling that reporters are not to be called before grand juries if the government has not already exhausted other means to gather the information in question, or if enough material for indictment has already been obtained. Separately, the Justice Department announced in July 2012 that it would not seek testimony by journalists in the prosecution of John C. Kiriakou, a former intelligence officer accused of leaking classified information.

Another case during the year centered on efforts by award-winning Irish journalist Ed Moloney and researcher Anthony McIntyre to keep their sources secret. Moloney and McIntyre had conducted interviews with former members of the Irish Republican Army militant group for an oral history project at Boston College and promised the interviewees that their contributions would only be published after their deaths. Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in July 2012 that the interviews must be surrendered to the police. Moloney and McIntyre were petitioning the Supreme Court to intervene at year’s end.

Although it has not yet ensnared journalists, the case of Army private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have provided hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks, has drawn considerable attention from civil libertarians, both because of the nature of the charges and because of the harsh detention conditions Manning has reportedly endured while awaiting trial since his 2010 arrest. It remained unclear in 2012 whether individuals associated with WikiLeaks would be charged despite the group’s claim to be the equivalent of a media organization.

In November 2012, proposed antileak measures were dropped from an intelligence authorization bill after protests from press freedom organizations and civil libertarians. Among other provisions, the bill would have forced many former government employees to wait one year before providing analysis or commentary for the media, prohibited intelligence community officials from speaking to the media about unclassified issues, and given intelligence agencies the authority to strip pension benefits from any employee or former employee that they determine to have been responsible for an unauthorized disclosure.

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 2009, when the attorney general 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 and that fulfillment of FOIA requests can take months or even years. The Obama administration has also drawn criticism for policies that discourage journalistic access to federal officials. The president holds fewer press conferences than his predecessors and often uses interviews with friendly media to present his perspective to the public. Journalists have also complained of an environment in which officials are less likely to discuss policy issues with reporters than during previous administrations.

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the courts have been asked to adjudicate a number of requests by journalists or civil liberties organizations who seek access to information related to counterterrorism. In April 2012, a federal court denied a request by Judicial Watch for access to photographs that showed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden’s body after he was killed during a 2011 raid by American special forces. The federal judiciary has also been asked to rule on reporters’ access to the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where over 100 detainees associated with counterterrorism efforts or the war in Afghanistan are held.

Official regulation of media content in the United States is minimal, and there are no industry-wide self-regulatory bodies. 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 in terrestrial broadcasts. While the judiciary has declined to issue a broad ruling on the FCC’s authority to regulate indecency on the airwaves, recent decisions have chipped away at the agency’s power. The Supreme Court ruled against FCC restrictions in two cases in 2012, one involving fleeting expletives during awards shows and another involving partial nudity in a police drama.

Although the government does not restrict political or social engagement over the internet, there are laws banning or regulating promulgation of child-abuse images, exposure of minors to indecent content, dissemination of confidential information, online gambling, and the use of copyrighted material. The search-engine giant Google reported that requests from government entities at the local, state, and federal levels for removal of content had risen steadily in recent years, including in 2012. Two proposed laws—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)—that would have allowed the government to order the blocking of entire websites if they contained copyrighted material without authorization were withdrawn in January after internet companies and advocates of internet freedom staged a series of virtual protests, including blackouts by a number of frequently-used sites.

 Controversy has emerged in recent years over cases involving bloggers and other new media workers who claim the status, protections, and rights of journalists. Police departments in New York City and elsewhere denied formal journalist status to some new media practitioners who applied for accreditation to cover the Occupy protests in 2011. The debate continued in January 2012, when several journalists were arrested while covering the clashes between police and Occupy protesters in Oakland, California. Those without what the police accepted as official accreditation were briefly held in custody. In another case in February, filmmaker Josh Fox was arrested on Capitol Hill for covering a congressional subcommittee hearing without accreditation. The hearing was open to the public, and congressional aides were able to record images without repercussions.

Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and increasingly partisan. The press itself is frequently a source of contention, 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 popularity of talk-radio shows, whose hosts are primarily conservative, 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. The trend toward fewer family-owned newspapers and more newspapers under corporate control has contributed to a less partisan, if blander, editorial tone. In December 2012, a noteworthy controversy emerged after a newspaper in suburban New York published the names and addresses of area residents who held permits to own handguns. The paper was subsequently inundated by protests and complaints, including some threats of violence. In recent years, there have been few physical attacks on reporters in reprisal for their work, although journalists covering the Occupy protests were repeatedly subject to arrest and detention in 2011 and early 2012.

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 conservative Republican Party legislators for an alleged liberal bias, and there have been efforts to eliminate or greatly reduce government funding for NPR and PBS. Meanwhile, Qatar’s internationally popular satellite television network Al-Jazeera English (AJE), which previously had difficulty breaking into the U.S. market due to a political stigma dating to the Bush administration, has found a growing number of cable television companies willing to offer the channel to U.S. viewers.

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. In 2011, the FCC approved the acquisition of NBC Universal, including the NBC television network, by Comcast, a major cable provider. Among the terms of approval, the FCC stipulated that Comcast’s cable offerings could not favor content generated by its own media entities over that produced by other companies. 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.

Traditional media, including print and broadcast outlets, have suffered financially from the increasing popularity of the internet as a news source. 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. A few newspapers have dropped print editions entirely, and others publish only a few times a week, concentrating their resources on online editions. Financial weakness has particularly affected outlets’ ability to conduct investigative reporting and cover foreign news. More recently, coverage of local news by television stations in some medium-sized cities has been affected by economic problems. The result in some areas has been a sharing of resources, including journalistic staff, among competing stations.

The decline in coverage offered by traditional media has been partly offset by the growth of cable television and internet journalism. Approximately 81 percent of Americans used the internet in 2012. In 2010, for the first time, Americans who identified their primary source of news as the internet outnumbered those who relied most on newspapers. The number and influence of websites and blogs have grown rapidly over the past decade, and more recently, social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have gained prominence as a means of breaking news and mobilizing public opinion on political and policy issues. Indeed, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that the internet was the third most frequently used source for news about the 2012 presidential campaign, trailing only cable news networks and local television news, and far exceeding newspapers.

2013 Scores

Press Status

Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

18

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

10

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

5