Recent polling data shows that most Americans think their press is the freest in the world -- indeed, some believe it is too free. But according to a new report by Freedom House, a highly respected civil liberties advocacy group, the US is among countries that have experienced “notable setbacks” in press freedom.
“Freedom of the Press 2005: A Global Survey of Media Independence,” revealed that the US ranked 17th among a group of 194 countries, behind Costa Rica.
The report said the US score declined due to “a number of legal cases in which prosecutors sought to compel journalists to reveal sources or turn over notes or other material they had gathered in the course of investigations.”
It declared, “Doubts concerning official influence over media content emerged with the disclosures that several political commentators received grants from federal agencies, and that the Bush administration had significantly increased the practice of distributing government-produced news segments.”
The survey was produced by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions covering a wide range of press freedom violations.
Of the 194 countries and territories examined, 75 (39 percent) were rated ‘Free’, 50 (26 percent) were rated ‘Partly Free’ and 69 (35 percent) were rated ‘Not Free’. The freest nations in 2004 were Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. At the very bottom of the list was North Korea, followed by Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, and Turkmenistan.
The second reason for the poorer showing by the US, the Freedom House report claims, is the government’s practice of paying journalists to espouse Administration positions without identifying their government sponsors.
In one case, the administration -- seeking to build support among black families for its education reform plans -- paid a prominent African American pundit, Armstrong Williams, 240,000 dollars to promote the ”No Child Left Behind” law on his nationally syndicated television show and through his newspaper column, and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
Other nationally known journalists have also admitted accepting thousands of dollars to endorse government programs.
In addition, the government has been producing Video News Releases (VNRs) -- pre-packaged to look like independent news -- and distributing them to local television stations across the US. The stations frequently fail to identify the government as the source, thus encouraging viewers to believe they are watching genuine news. More than 20 different federal agencies have used taxpayer funds to produce television news segments promoting Bush administration policies.
Pres. Bush has defended the government's sending such ”pre-packaged news stories” to local television stations and says he plans to continue the practice. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional watchdog agency, has called them a form of “covert propaganda”.
”Paying journalists to write positive stories is part of a pattern of secrecy and manipulating the public that undermines our safety and our democracy”, Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told Inter Press Service.
Rick Blum of OpenTheGovernment.org, another pro-transparency advocacy group, told IPS, ”The public expects journalists are credible and independent, free of government money and conflicts of interest.”
Norman Solomon, a syndicated columnist on media and politics and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, said in an interview with IPS, ”The 'video news releases' put out by the US government are pernicious because the TV broadcasts often do not tell the viewers that the government is funding and controlling those supposed 'news' reports.”
And Martin Kaplan, head of the Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, told IPS. ”The consequence of their injecting fake news into the media mainstream may be even worse than poisoning public debate on specific issues. It corrodes the ability of real journalism to do its job.”
But, media critics say, there are many other factors at play in the diminution of press freedom in the US. A major threat, they say, is the Bush Administration’s excessive secrecy.
Bill Moyers, who recently retired as one of America’s most respected broadcast journalists and who was press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson when Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act, charges that President Bush) “has clamped a lid on public access.”
Since Bush entered office, there has been a more than 75 percent increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year. There has been a corresponding explosion in the number of requests for information under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
FOIA was signed into law by President Johnson in 1966 to increase public access to federal government records.
Dr. Charles N. Davis, Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, told IPS, “Press freedom in the US is experiencing some dark days, as government at all levels seems content to turn its back on cherished freedoms in favor of administrative expediency, executive privilege and propaganda. Its embrace of secrecy to the point of caricature is but a symptom of the broader disease: this is a government with absolutely no respect for the role of the press in a democracy.”
Another critic, Dr. Jack N. Behrman, a former assistant secretary of commerce, told IPS, “The present Administration has cowed the American media to the point where many dare not oppose public policies or particularly those proposed. Our government avowedly promotes freedom abroad but has sought successfully to limit it in the US through secrecy and manipulation of the media."
Journalists complain that Administration secrecy has greatly increased the difficulty of accurately reporting the Bush White House. According to US News and World Report, the Administration has “quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government --cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters. The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government…”
White House spokespersons have said repeatedly that the administration policy toward the media is honest and transparent.
But there are many other factors at play in the erosion of press freedom -- and the difficulties faced by journalists trying to report the facts -- in the US. For example:
Recent polls suggest the public has little confidence in the integrity of the media.
The growth of cable TV’s 24-hour news cycle has often blurred the line between news, commentary and entertainment. It has also become increasingly ideological.
Demographic changes have cut audiences for newspapers and ‘the nightly news’ broadcasts, and increased the use of cable and the Internet as primary sources for news.
Increasing concentration of media ownership is also playing a role in reducing news sources for Americans. There are only a few cities left in the US with more than one newspaper. And ‘local’ television stations often get their news from a centralized source far from the location of the viewer.
In the US, two journalists, Judith Miller of the New York Times, and Matthew Cooper of TIME Magazine, are facing prison sentences for refusing to reveal their sources in a high-profile case in which the name of a covert CIA agent was publicly revealed. Neither Miller nor Cooper ever wrote articles about the case – a Chicago Sun Times syndicated columnist, Robert Novak, named the agent in print. But the government is demanding that Miller and Cooper turn over any information they have. The journalists have lost their appeals in lower courts, and will now take their case to the Supreme Court.
A number of recent surveys suggest Americans take their first amendment freedoms for granted. For example, more than a third of US high school students think the First Amendment -- which protects freedom of speech -- goes too far in the rights it guarantees, according to a survey carried out last year by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Administration's secretiveness, combined with a number of economic and demographic factors, are having a chilling effect on news gathering and reporting. One yardstick is the number of newspaper quotes attributed to “un-named sources.”
The US has been through other periods of censorship and self-censorship, but has always bounced back to fully assert its First Amendment freedoms. The principal difference is that, on most of the previous occasions, press blackouts occurred during wars. And in those days, wars had beginnings and ends. The so-called “war on terror,” which is responsible for much of the fear spreading through newsrooms, may not have an end.
But the First Amendment will.
William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He can be reached through his blog at: http://billfisher.blogspot.com/.
Other Articles by William Fisher
Dollars At Work