Freedom of the Press 2009

Press freedom was robust in the United States during 2008, with extensive coverage of the presidential campaign from a variety of perspectives. There were also in-depth investigations of controversial counterterrorism policies, the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and corruption scandals. At the same time, the year featured a major decline in the American newspaper industry, with leading outlets cutting news staff, shrinking in size, closing national and foreign bureaus, and reducing the scope of investigative reporting and foreign coverage. By year’s end, a number of the country’s most fabled newspapers were reported to be facing possible closure.

Press freedom has strong foundations in American law. The federal constitution explicitly protects freedom of the press and expression, and this protection has been reinforced by numerous state laws and court decisions. The Supreme Court has on many occasions ruled in favor of press freedom, and courts have given broad protection to the press from libel and defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures, although libel remains a criminal offense in a number of states. In May, New York State adopted legislation giving writers protection from libel judgments in countries whose laws are inconsistent with America’s free speech tradition. The measure, known as Rachel’s Law, was passed after an American author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, was sued in a British court by an individual she discussed in her book on terrorism funding. A similar bill has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. The administration of President George W. Bush had come under criticism for a 2003 executive order that enabled the executive branch to delay the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act and to reclassify previously released information. At the end of 2007, however, Bush signed into law a revised Freedom of Information Act that is intended to expedite the document request process and provide mediation in cases where a federal agency is reluctant to release material.

An exception to judicial support for press freedom involves demands by prosecutors for information gathered by reporters in the course of their journalistic investigations, including material from confidential sources. Journalists have resisted revealing sources and providing prosecutors with research materials on a number of occasions in recent years, but they have usually been directed to comply with court requests by federal judges. Several journalists have gone to jail on contempt of court charges for refusing to hand over material, and several others were spared jail time when the cases ended in settlements and the legal proceedings were dropped. Contempt charges against Toni Locy, a former reporter for USA Today, were dropped in federal court after the plaintiff in a civil suit reached a settlement with the government. A judge had ordered Locy to turn over her notes and had found her in contempt when she refused. As a result of the growing number of journalist source cases, Congress took up a bill that would grant journalists a qualified right not to reveal news sources in federal cases. The measure, called the Free Flow of Information Act, passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin in 2007. However, on July 30, 2008, Republicans blocked its passage in the Senate. The bill would have allowed journalists to withhold sources except in cases where the testimony would be critical to the outcome of a trial, in cases of potential terrorism, or where the testimony or information would fulfill a “compelling public interest.” The measure did not extend protections to amateur bloggers or journalism students. Some 37 of the 50 states already have such “shield laws.”

There was a relatively low level of violence against journalists in 2008. Threats were made against the editors of two ethnic newspapers—an Urdu-language publication in Houston, Texas, and a South Asian weekly in New York. The publisher of the Oakland Post, a weekly newspaper in California that covers the African American community, was given police protection after receiving threats. In 2007, the editor of that newspaper, Chauncey Bailey, was murdered, apparently in reprisal for investigative reports on criminal gangs in the city. The murder investigation is ongoing, and the publisher, Paul Cobb, has received repeated threats since Bailey’s death. A news producer for the television network ABC was arrested and charged for three “violations of Denver municipal ordinance” while covering the August Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. In September, police in St. Paul, Minnesota, arrested a number of journalists who were covering protests at the Republican National Convention. The arrested journalists were eventually released without charge. In May, federal authorities freed Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera who had been held for six years without charge by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay. He was originally arrested in Pakistan in 2001.

Media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and in some cases partisan. The press itself is frequently a source of controversy, with conservatives and supporters of the Bush administration accusing the media of anti-administration bias, and liberals accusing the press of timidity in its coverage of hot-button issues like torture and the war in Iraq. The appearance of enhanced polarization is driven to some degree by the growing influence of blogs, many of which are aggressively partisan. Nonetheless, most American newspapers make a serious effort to keep a wall of separation between news reporting, commentary, and editorials. Ironically, the trend toward fewer family-owned newspapers and more newspapers under corporate control has contributed to a less partisan, if blander, editorial tone. In recent years, cable television stations that focus on news and public affairs have gained substantial viewership. These outlets are more openly partisan than the three major television networks. In recent years, reporters from several prominent newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, have published investigative articles that called into question various aspects of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies and its conduct of the Iraq war. Articles have included details of prisoner abuse in Iraq, extraordinary renditions and “ghost prisoners,” allegations of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, and similar issues related to national security policy.

The media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR), an entity funded partly by the government and partly by private contributions, enjoys a substantial audience. 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. On several occasions, the FCC has issued fines against radio and television outlets for what the agency deemed acts of indecency.

The newspaper industry in the United States is undergoing a period of profound decline and readjustment. There are more than 1,400 daily newspapers geared primarily toward local readerships. But many of the largest and most prestigious papers are on shaky financial legs, due principally to the increasing popularity of the internet as a source of news. Circulations have fallen substantially, as have revenues from advertising. One of the country’s largest newspaper organizations, the Tribune Corporation, declared bankruptcy in 2008, though its papers—which include the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times—continued to publish. Many predict a major transformation of the newspaper business in the coming years, with some newspapers closing altogether, some publishing only online, and many focusing exclusively on local issues. However, the primary form of news dissemination in the country is through television networks like Cable News Network (CNN), Fox News, NBC, ABC, and CBS, which maintain a consistent audience. Media ownership concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. This problem has intensified in recent years following the purchase of media entities, especially television networks, by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. The FCC regularly considers policies that would lift restrictions on the monopolization of national or local media markets by a limited number of entities, with a particular focus on policies that limit a single corporation’s ownership of both television stations and newspapers in a single local market.

At the same time, diversity of the U.S. media has expanded with the mushrooming of cable television and the internet. Nearly 73 percent of Americans are internet users, placing the country among the world leaders in internet penetration. The number and influence of internet sites and blogs have expanded greatly in recent years, and blogs have proven to be an important source of information in many incidents. As noted above, blogs devoted to public policy questions are often highly partisan, and though their proliferation adds to the richness of press diversity, it also contributes to ideological polarization.

2009 Scores

Press Status


Press Freedom Score


Political Environment


Economic Environment