Freedom of the Press - United States of America (2005)

Status: Free
Legal Environment: 5
Political Influences: 7
Economic Pressures: 5
Total Score: 17

Population: n/a
GNI/capita: n/a
Life Expectancy: 77
Religious Groups: Protestant (52 percent), Roman Catholic (24 percent), Mormon (2 percent), Jewish (1 percent), Muslim (1 percent), other (20 percent)
Ethnic Groups: white (77 percent), black (13 percent), Asian (4 percent), Amerindian (1.5 percent), Pacific Islander (0.3 percent), other (4 percent)
Capital: Washington, D.C.

A major controversy emerged in 2004 over efforts by federal prosecutors to compel journalists to reveal sources or to turn over notes or other data. In several instances, judges threatened to fine and imprison reporters who declined to provide material demanded by prosecutors.

The United States has a long tradition of legal protection for press freedom. Press freedom is enshrined in the U.S. constitution and state law and has consistently been reinforced by decisions of the Supreme Court. Among other things, judicial decisions have set standards that make it quite difficult to bring a successful libel case against a journalist in the United States. In addition, the standards for bringing prosecution against a publication or Web site for hate speech is much higher in the United States than in Europe or other societies. The courts usually side with journalists who are seeking information that government officials are reluctant to make public. After September 11, 2001, the legal environment shifted somewhat when the administration of President George W. Bush increased the volume of classified information. During the past year, however, journalists were able to acquire a number of documents relating to the government's war on terrorism, including key memos that outlined policies for the treatment of prisoners detained in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, Cuba.

In recent years, there has been growing tension between prosecutors and journalists over demands that reporters make available their notes, tape recordings, or confidential conversations as evidence in criminal cases. Although 32 states have laws that grant journalists the right to withhold evidence in some instances, there is no federal law that gives journalists the same rights to privileged communication that, for example, doctors and clerics enjoy under the U.S. system. The Supreme Court has also refused to give reporters the right to withhold information in criminal cases. During the summer of 2004, several journalists were subpoenaed about their roles in revealing the identity of Valerie Plame, an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Plame's identity as a CIA analyst was allegedly leaked to the press by administration officials after her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, wrote an article critical of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq's weapons program. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to reveal the name of a covert intelligence agent, and the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the case demanded that several reporters, who were at best tangentially involved in the story, testify as to their sources. When the reporters declined to provide the information, a federal judge found them in contempt of court and ordered them to jail. At year's end, the reporters were at liberty pending the appeals process. In a similar case, a federal judge ordered a television reporter from Providence, Rhode Island, to serve a six-month sentence of house arrest for refusing to reveal who gave him a federal surveillance tape.

Press coverage of U.S. politics is robust, ideologically diverse, and often argumentative. Like the American people, the press was deeply divided in its coverage of the 2004 presidential election. A notable controversy emerged over flawed coverage of President Bush's military service by the CBS television network. The network ultimately issued an apology over its assertion that Bush had received preferential treatment during his service in the National Guard. Several members of the CBS news staff were fired, and its longtime anchor, Dan Rather, announced his retirement shortly after the incident.

The Bush administration came under fire when it was revealed that several political commentators had received grants from agencies of the federal government. In one case, Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist and television commentator, received over $200,000 from the Department of Education to promote the administration's educational policies. The administration was also criticized for providing prepackaged television spots that promoted its policies. The production of the television segments made it appear that an independent news reporter was covering a story about a particular program when in fact the "reporter" was hired by the government. A number of television stations throughout the country aired these segments, usually without informing viewers that the material had been provided by the government. Although the use of government-generated television segments originated during previous presidential administrations, the Bush administration is believed to have made more extensive use of the practice.

The government drew protests from international journalists organizations for its policy of refusing entry to or deporting certain foreign journalists. In some cases, the government justified its action on the grounds that the journalists were functioning as intelligence agents. In other cases, the foreign reporters ran afoul of tightened visa guidelines instituted after 9/11.

Under U.S. 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 materials. In March 2004, the CBS television network was fined $550,000 for showing a singer's bare breast during a football championship broadcast. Later in the year, free speech proponents worried about self-censorship when fines of up to US$1.18 million – the largest single fine to date – were levied against other television and radio broadcasters for airing sexual expletives, excessive violence, and other material deemed indecent. Citing fear of fines, some affiliates of the ABC network declined to broadcast Saving Private Ryan, a graphically violent World War II movie, and the Public Broadcasting Service edited a documentary on the Iraq war to remove expletives from interviews with the soldiers. Congress is expected to consider legislation in 2005 to expand the FCC's power to cover private cable and satellite stations and to increase the maximum fines for indecent broadcasts, which some civil libertarians fear may chill free speech.

Media concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. This controversy has intensified in recent years following the purchase of media entities, especially television networks, by large corporations with no previous experience in journalism. In 2003, the FCC issued a decision that would relax restrictions on the ability of newspapers to own broadcast media in the same geographical market. The decision has never been fully implemented, pending the outcome of court challenges.

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