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Freedom of the Press for Whom?

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

It is symptomatic that discussions of “rights” today so often relate to property. Amid a great torrent of recent criticism of government in the United States, there has been little complaint that it has attempted to shackle the purely personal liberties—the liberties belonging to man as man rather than as worker or owner or investor. Even in war-time, there has been notably less interference on the part of government with freedom of thought, of teaching, of speech, and of the press than in World War I. But as to interference with business, that is a different story, as everyone knows. Complaints on this score have been loud and furious both before the war and since.

This, as I have said, is symptomatic. The battle for freedom in our time has shifted somewhat, Instead of being centered on man as man “endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights,” the battle today has come to be centered on man as economic man, endowed by his pressure group with certain power—in the fullest exploitation of which the press is an indispensable asset.

It is in such a context as this that the right of freedom of the press must be examined today. Is freedom of the press to be conceived as a personal right appertaining to all citizens, as undoubtedly the Founding Fathers conceived it; or as a property right appertaining to the ownership of newspapers and other publications, as we have come to think of it largely today?

If it is only a property right belonging to newspaper owners, freedom of the press is no longer a serious issue in the United States, except perhaps in war-time. Whoever has the cash can buy and operate a press and, this side of treason and not too far the other side of pornography, print just about anything he chooses. Aside from an occasional post-office regulation (which affects mailing privileges), there has not been for a long time any considerable effort on the part of government to ban publication.

But freedom of the press as a personal right appertaining to citizenship is a different matter. We are very far from having guaranteed this right. As a personal right, freedom of the press belongs as much to the clerk and the bootblack as to the owner of a newspaper chain, and there are strong reasons for believing that it was this sort of right the Founding Fathers envisaged and were concerned to protect. In the first place, freedom of the press was not set apart in the First Amendment as a unique and special right but only as one of the several guarantees of free expression—free speech, free press, free assembly, free petition—the purpose of the whole being to insure to the people, all the people on as nearly an equal basis as possible, the right to voice their opinions, to disseminate information and propaganda, to protest, to agitate, and to criticize.

In the second place, no other concept of freedom of the press is compatible with the very first postulate of democracy itself. The successful functioning of democracy presupposes above everything else that all citizens will have two rights on fairly equal terms: the right of utterance and the right of hearing, the right to give whatever information or opinions we think important to others and the right to get whatever information or opinions we think important from others. Now, if the clerk and the bootblack are deprived of publicizing their views only because they do not and cannot own a press, both of these fundamental rights ar”e violated. For when some are denied the right of utterance, all are denied the right of full and free information—a basic condition of democracy.

The present confusion in our thinking about freedom of the press grows out of a popular misconception that only government can menace freedom. Historically, freedom has been as often menaced by other powerful groups—the church, feudal lords, the aristocracy, industrialists, or even the proletariat—as by government. In the United States the battle for freedom of the press, conceived as a right of citizenship, is no longer primarily a battle to wrest more such freedom from government. It is to make freedom of the press more of a reality for the average citizen, who does not and cannot own a newspaper, by curbing the increasing monopoly of this right by an ever smaller number of corporations and individuals who, as owners, enjoy the only real freedom of the press today.


Ownership of a newspaper does not differ in any significant particular from ownership of any other commercial enterprise, which means among other things that a newspaper must be profitable as a financial venture. This, in turn, means that its general policy in selecting and presenting news must take profits into account, and that it must also take into account generally the bias, opinions, and interests of the owner. This is merest truism; it is simply the nature of all ownership.

While there is nothing singular about newspapers being private business, there is cause for concern about business having a monopoly on a nation’s sources of information. The reason is not that business is sinister. Monopoly of the press by any group—by labor or by government no less than by business—is the one thing that freedom cannot endure. Yet monopoly—monopoly in general and by business in particular—is precisely the one most characteristic feature of the daily press in America today.

To begin with, newspaper publishing has come to be big business in its own right. Even small newspaper publishing is big business. Time magazine recently reported sale of the Massillon, Ohio, Independent (circulation, 11,858) for “around $400,000”; the Spartanburg, South Carolina, Herald (17,351) and Journal (8,678) for $750,000—all smaller dailies. In contrast, William Allen White paid only $3,000 for the Emporia Gazette in 1892. A metropolitan daily now represents an investment of many millions. Scripps-Howard in 1923 paid $6,000,000 for the same newspaper that had been offered in 1892 for only $51,000. The Philadelphia Inquirer sold for $18,000,000 in 1930; the Kansas City Star for $11,000,000 in 1926. In brief, newspaper publishing is no longer a trade one takes up lightly even if he has substantial cash—or takes up at all if he doesn’t. If freedom of the press is to be had only through ownership of a newspaper, it can, under present conditions, be a reality only for the well-to-do.

The nature of the newspaper industry renders it peculiarly the handmaiden of business. Business is what the newspaper has to sell, the source of its own profits, the one main reason for its existence as a commercial enterprise. If it will not or cannot sell business to the public, it simply cannot exist. It could not ofVend or flout business and survive as a competitive commercial enterprise. The very nature of commercial journalism compels it to become the mouthpiece of business.

But monopoly by business is not all; there are also monopolistic trends in the newspaper industry itself today that are increasingly menacing to any real freedom of the press. In the United States for at least thirty years the trend has been toward fewer and fewer newspapers with larger and larger circulations per paper. In 1909 there were approximately 2,600 dailies with a total circulation of 24,211,977. By 1942 the number of dailies had dropped to 1,974, while the circulation had nearly doubled to reach 42,385,807. This trend continues. Between 1936 and 1942, for example, 204 dailies ceased publication, while the overall circulation increased by 4,000,000 in 1942-45 alone, to reach the record total of 46,706,904.

The trend toward fewer and larger newspapers is only half the story. The trend is also toward fewer owners of those that remain. Already in 1933 only 63 chains, with a total of 361 newspapers, controlled more than 37 per cent of the nation’s total daily circulation; and only six chains —Hearst, Patterson-McCormick, Scripps-Howard, Paul Block, Ridder, and Gannett—with their 81 dailies, controlled more than 21 per cent of the country’s total daily circulation. By 1940, chains controlled about two-fifths of the entire daily circulation in the country and one-half of the Sunday circulation. What this means in practical terms is that something like three-score corporations, many of them dominated by one man, determine what two-fifths to one-half of all Americans shall be permitted to learn from their newspapers.

If you look at the situation town by town—which after all is the way to look at it, since a newspaper reader lives in only one town at a time—the monopolistic pattern becomes even more pronounced. As of 1940, there were only 181 cities in the entire United States which still had competing daily newspapers; and if the recent trend toward consolidation and elimination should continue at the same numerical rate, there would not be a single such city by 1950. During the 1930’s, mergers and foldings deprived 245 communities of the right to choose between at least two versions of the news, leaving by 1940 nearly 88 per cent of all American communities, or a total of 1,245, either with only one daily newspaper or with all under one ownership.

The tendency of a single owner to seize all communication agencies in a community has long since invaded the field of radio—the one potential curb on newspaper monopoly over news dissemination. As of January 15,1939, 238 broadcasting stations in the United States and Hawaii had newspaper affiliations, and the number continues to grow.

If we inquire where the newspapers themselves get the news, we are confronted with near-monopolies of nationwide extent. In all except local news, three organizations —the Associated Press, the United Press, and the International News Service—virtually control the business of news gathering and distribution for the entire country. As they choose, they can blackout or they can blanket the nation concerning any news event whatsoever, so far as newspapers are concerned. I do not mean to imply that they work in any such conspiracy; I am only describing the extent of their power over the press and, through the press, over the nation’s freedom to be informed. In the case of one of these three, the Associated Press, the form of its organization renders it peculiarly monopolistic, since its services can be denied to possible new competitors by newspapers holding Associated Press charters—a provision that has recently been under attack by the government. And in the case of the other two, both are privately owned and subject to the bias of the owners—in one case the notorious William Randolph Hearst.


Here, then, is the picture we find, as respects actual freedom of the press in the United States today: nearly nine-tenths of all American communities are free to read the news according to one newspaper, which is free to present it with due regard to its own business interests and to business interests in general, by whose favor alone the new? paper survives; and provided always that nothing of national scope may ordinarily be presented by any newspaper anywhere that it has not pleased Hearst, Scripps-Howard, or the Associated Press to call news.

Where in all this, we may now ask, is there the sort of freedom of the press for the average citizen that must have been envisaged by the Founding Fathers, who knew the press only as the small independent voice of editor-owners, publishing little sheets mainly as sidelines to job printing? It was not until 1783 that such a thing as a daily newspaper was known in the United States; and the known 242 newspapers published in 1800, only 24 of which were dailies, circulated altogether an estimated 200,000 copies a week—an average of a little more than 300 copies for each of the 605 individual issues.

Very different are the implications on democracy of these little sheets of small capitalization circulating 300 copies each, and the present huge enterprises using rotary presses capable of blanketing a whole area within a matter of minutes with a single version of what is important and what is true among the day’s happenings. Surely, Jefferson could not have been unduly solicitous lest a Hearst—controlling interests in newspapers, magazines, radio stations, motion picture companies, and other enterprises, estimated by Fortune in 1935 at nearly a quarter of a billion dollars-should not have his voice heard. Through his Sunday newspapers alone he reaches the ear of about every sixth newspaper reader in the United States and his daily editions in some 28 different cities circulate approximately 5,000,000 copies. Surely, he hardly requires the special solicitations of constitutional guarantees to give him his fair share of freedom of the press.

But how about the dozens of editors and thousands of writers and other employees in the Hearst organization? Is not their freedom of press exactly the freedom to write in a way pleasing and profitable to the Lord of San Simeon? When, according to Alfred McClung Lee, in “The Daily Newspaper in America,” J. T. Williams, editorial writer for Hearst’s Washington Times, received a wire, allegedly sent by W. R. Hearst in California, on April 5, 1985, directing him to “make several editorials calling for the impeachment of Mr, McSwain,” a member of Congress, could Mr. Williams have exercised his freedom of the press to defend McSwain? It is hardly a realistic answer to say that he could have resigned and gone elsewhere, when we find other papers, too, under corporate or individual control different perhaps in degree but alike in being proprietary commercial enterprises, in which freedom of the press is one of the intangible property rights whose title is vested solely in the owner.

Here is the way the case was stated in 1939 by the late William Allen White, himself one of the most eminent of recent editor-owners:

The most serious danger that menaces the freedom of the American press is the obvious anxiety of rich publishers about the freedom of the press. They make so much noise . . . about the threat to the freedom of the press that they have persuaded many people . . . that [it] is merely a private snap for editors who wish to exploit the public by selling poisoned news.

. . . The publisher associates on terms of equality with the bankers, the merchant princes, the manufacturers, and the investing brokers . . . He takes the color of his social environment. He is pretty generally against organized labor. He is too often found opposing the government control of public utilities. He instinctively fears any regulation of the stock exchange. The right to strike seems to the rich publisher and his chamber of commerce friends to be sheer anarchy . . . The managing editor and the editorial writers who want to hold their jobs . . . get their professional slant from their boss . . .

So it often happens, alas too often, that a newspaper publisher, reflecting this unconscious class arrogance of the conscious rich, thinks he is printing news when he is doctoring it innocently enough . . .

It is unrealistic to say that those having complaints against business can always buy a press and have their say. This is one of those largely rhetorical truths, with just enough substance to conceal the real truth. Actually, as we have seen, the business of gathering and publishing the news today is so elaborate and expensive that only the well-to-do could undertake it at all, and even they could not make a financial success of a newspaper that did not please business. Newspaper publishing, like any other industry, is highly competitive; but, unlike others, success in it does not depend primarily on how well it performs what supposedly is its main function—publishing news—but on how successfully it appeals to advertisers. Grant that there is a relation between its news appeal and its advertising appeal; still the fact remains that business, not*the general public, holds largely in its hands the power to make or break a newspaper through the placing of its advertising.

The newspaper finds itself in this dilemma: the only way to be independent of business control would be to charge the entire cost of news gathering and publishing up to the readers, which would place any newspaper at a fatal competitive disadvantage against rivals receiving large advertising subsidies. But the alternative—charging off the normal three-fourths of the cost of news publishing to advertising-imposes the necessity of competing for the favor of business, with all that this entails. Commercial journalism, thus, has no real alternative but to align itself with business. What boots a constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press whose exercise is inevitable bankruptcy?

It should be granted that American journalism under the aegis of business has attained a considerable objectivity in reporting the general run of events when no class interest is involved. But a sound freedom cannot be founded on noblesse oblige; a real freedom of the press demands that a means be found of giving a press voice to those large groups in our population who are not concerned primarily with the ownership of business.


The largest groups whose interests and views lack adequate expression in the press today are labor, consumers, and the general public—precisely as one would expect in a business-controlled press, because their interests are often opposed to the immediate and apparent interests of business. What is gain to labor or the consumer is loss to the employer and seller—in the short view. News advantageous to labor or to consumers but hurtful to some elements of business is, therefore, likely to be ignored or inadequately presented, not usually from conscious bias but because the newspapers’ whole system of values leads them to consider the accomplishments of business or what business wants to hear as news but what is unpleasant or hurtful to business as being, well, hardly what one puts in a newspaper.

No one who has examined the considerable library of documented evidence in the record of American newspapers could doubt that the business, and hence anti-labor, bias of newspapers is deep and pervasive and that consciously or unconsciously, it colors the news picture in myriad ways. As long as issues are not too sharp, this bias may be hardly discernible. But when conflict arises, as in the case of labor strikes, the alignment of the press with its economic bedfellows usually becomes quite obvious. According to Time magazine (April 10, 1944) “the word strike was long taboo in the columns” of the Philadelphia Bulletin. The Inter-church World Movement, in a study of the Pittsburgh steel strike of 1919, concluded that the Pittsburgh newspapers sustained a policy of antagonism to the strike by: (1) acceptance of advertisements from the employers regardless of the merit of statements in them; (2) representing that the strikers were radicals or revolutionists; (3) silence as to workers’ actual grievances; (4) publishing statistics in a misleading way; and (5) publishing employers’ accounts of violence and disorder without investigation.

In Editor and Publisher for July 28, 1934, Earl Burke told in detail how the newspapers helped break the San Francisco general strike of 1934. Francis Neylan, general counsel for Hearst newspapers, was chosen leader of the publishers’ campaign, and “under Mr. Neylan’s leadership plans were made to crush the revolt.” William Randolph Hearst cabled from London telling how the 1926 strike in England was broken, and “on Sunday, July 15, the Examiner and the Chronicle published front-page editorials stating that radicals had seized control by intimidation and that the general strike was a revolution against constituted authority.” General Hugh Johnson, representing the government, was “informed that his tactics had been such that the people of California might have to decide to get along without him. In fact . . . they might even have to ask him to leave San Francisco . . . As he was leaving San Francisco, he remarked that this was the first time he had ‘ever been up against a newspaper oligarchy.’”

Harold L. Ickes in his book, “America’s House of Lords,” gives these among other instances of newspaper suppression, all showing an anti-labor or class bias: the refusal of advertisements of the Newspaper Guild by Chicago newspapers and the newspaper-controlled radio broadcasting companies when the Guild was striking against Hearst’s Examiner; the refusal of an advertisement for Lundberg’s “America’s Sixty Families,” a book about America’s industrial Titans, by the New York Herald Tribune; the deletion by some of the Scripps-Howard newspapers of a complimentary reference to John L. Lewis by Hugh S. Johnson in his syndicated column.

As regards consumers’ interests and the interests of the general public, let the impartial reader examine the record of the press on such questions as proposed legislation respecting pure foods and drugs and regulating securities. While there are exceptions, of course, newspapers in the main have either remained silent on these issues when they were issues, or they have lent comfort and support to those opposed to such legislation. Neither does one expect articles or editorials in newspapers exposing patent medicines; there may have been an occasional such article, but surely newspapers as a whole have been, strangely silent on this subject—until PM took up the cudgels in a series of articles beginning on April 16, 1944.

If there is one area above any other in which the interests of the general public demands accurate information, it is in the field of foreign affairs. The treatment of news from revolutionary Russia is particularly indicative of the bias to be expected of a business-controlled press. Robert W. Desmond in “The Press and World Affairs,” says that “virtually the only satisfactory foreign correspondence from Soviet Russia before 1920 was that appearing in the Manchester Guardian.” In a study of news from Russia appearing in the New York Times during the period 1917-20, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz concluded, among other things, “that at critical periods the time-honored tradition of protecting news against editorials breaks down. The Russian policy of the editors of the Times profoundly and crassly influenced their news columns.”

The one-time picture of the newspaper as the protagonist of the inarticulate masses, guarding the general welfare against designing and powerful usurpers, has become increasingly dubious. When the interest of the public is pitted against that of a powerful business, it is the business interest that newspapers must usually champion or they must keep silent. Even in the realm of politics, where traditionally the press was regarded as the not-too-loyal opposition, ever ready to expose the tyranny of power and speak out for the people, this is no longer true. Here, too, the press is usually on the side of the big money.


There are five main attacks to be made on the present press monopoly. The first is through voluntary schemes such as those already put into operation by some newspapers whereby their employees may acquire a share in ownership and control. Ownership by employees, of course, only tends to minimize, not cure, the evils possible under one-man control and to give somewhat more freedom to the actual news writers and editors themselves; it does not change the fundamental dependence of the newspaper upon business.

A second attack should be through the professionalization of news writing and editing. This might mean, among other things, setting up minimum qualifications for news workers —a step advocated many years ago by Walter Lippmann— and it should involve every practicable measure designed to give the individual news writer independence in performing his professional function and adequate pay for doing so.

Direct governmental action to enforce minimum standards of fair practices has also been suggested. There is great and justifiable suspicion of any governmental regulation of the press whatsoever, but the idea of government regulation of public communication agencies is established in practically every other field, including radio broadcasting. Newspapers might be required, for example, to offer their advertising columns on an equal basis to all, and conceivably they might be required to afford opportunity in the news columns for persons to answer charges against them or alleged misstatements of facts.

Perhaps the most promising hope of extending freedom of the press to those groups now largely suppressed, however, would be through the establishment of endowed newspapers and newspapers subsidized by philanthropic, educational, labor, and consumer groups. True, such newspapers would each show the taint of its sponsors, but the important thing, as I have said before, is not so much to have newspapers of no bias as to assure that they will not all have the same bias. Someone has said that at present one could ride across the continent, buying a newspaper in every town, and, except for different place names, find little to distinguish them.

The contributions to a real press freedom—and, much more than incidentally, to reinforcing our whole democracy —through an endowed or subsidized press are particularly challenging to persons with great fortunes to devote to public service today. Heretofore, such fortunes have gone mainly to universities or to foundations for educational purposes. Philanthropists might ponder a remark of II. G. Wells to the effect that when it comes to the actual direction of human affairs “all these universities have far less influence than, let us say, an intractable newspaper” Here is a real opportunity for a new type of educational philanthropy— one that would be devoted to publicizing truth as the old philanthropies have been devoted largely to discovering it.

Such newspapers would be not only highly serviceable themselves, but they would be a powerful stimulus and competitive yardstick to prod the commercial press to its best behavior. The newspaper PM is one step in this direction, and while it is yet too young for us properly to evaluate its permanent worth, we can already see the vast difference between its news respecting labor and consumers and that found in the commercial press.

The greatest single impetus to a truly free and unbiased press, though, would be an informed public, and here is room for a real contribution from the schools and colleges. I am not thinking primarily of courses in professional journalism, as found in many schools and colleges. There is room and even need for a certain amount of professional training; if we really mean to work as a democracy, we must recognize the function of the journalist—selecting the information to be given attention in the public mind—as crucial and do all we can to assure that it will be performed competently. But more important is the need of studying as a part of general education the nature, operation, and effect of the press.

It must strike anyone who stops to think about it as anomalous that in a democracy we should have developed studies in government, economics, and what is called sociology as “social studies” and yet left for the most part untouched in general education so fundamental a social instrument as the institution that furnishes us the bulk of our everyday “social” information—the eyes and ears of the social organism. As far as many of our leading universities are concerned, the press still hardly exists as a social institution. In an educational curriculum that has hardly overlooked a molehill—ancient, medieval, or modern—here is a mountain that has been left largely unexplored.

“Journalism,” said Sir Willmott Lewis of the London Times, “is the greatest unsolved problem of democracy.” The problem is the obvious contradiction between a “free” press and a press that is, after all, not free but owned, as any other property is owned. Democracy, postulating a free source of information, a free flow of opinion, finds the flow always must pass through private preserves where it can be dammed. But for the government to attempt to break this log-jam—to control the press—means the end of democracy itself. Resolving this dilemma will not be easy, but it is time for us to begin.


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