Is “the press” really free?

Zenger1 "Three years into the Iraq war, Richard Engel was holding down the fort as NBC’s Baghdad bureau chief when a top producer in New York, M.L. Flynn, told him there was "tremendous pressure" in the newsroom to lighten up his coverage."


"It was all about getting good-news stories out there," Engel says. "There was a collective impression that all the journalists were getting it wrong. It quickly spread to the blogosphere and the world of punditry. It seemed orchestrated."

Despite the feedback, Engel says NBC executives never directly pressed him to change his approach to the violence in Iraq. But in recent weeks he has found himself under assault by the White House over the editing of an interview with President Bush– the same president who had once invited him to the Oval Office to seek his advice about the interminable conflict."


"Beyond the physical risks, he also had to defend himself in the media echo chamber. Engel says he and other correspondents once again came under attack in 2006 and 2007 from bloggers and radio hosts who wanted a more positive portrait of the war." Howard Kurtz


I think Engel’s experience was rather widespread.  "Concerted?"  I can’t prove it yet but I would venture to say that the same kind of apparatus that sought to bend the media in many other ways also sought to intimidate journalists often through corporate media headquarters.

How?  A threat of denial of access to government officials, an implied or direct indication of regulatory favor or disfavor, the threat or actuality of granted or denied advertising dollars by sympathetic clients.  Fill in your own list.

Yes.  We have freedom of the news media in the United States.  Unfortunately, this freedom is tempered by the ability of the powerful and wealthy to bend the free media to their will.

This not something new.  Take a look at the way John Adams and the Federalists dealt with media they did not like, the way Wilson dealt with dissenters in wartime and how newspapers hostile to the Union cause were treated by the Lincoln Administrations.  pl

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16 Responses to Is “the press” really free?

  1. bcb says:

    “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”
    (variously attributed to A.J. Liebling and H.L. Mencken) There are no independently owned media outlets anymore except for a few of the major newspapers such as NYT and Washington Post. General Electric owns NBC, Disney owns ABC, Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Fox, Viacom owns CBS, AOL Time Warner owns CNN. With the demise of independent ownership has come the demise of editorial independence. Now the news divisions of these media conglomerates are satisfied in phoning in the Administration line, maybe presenting a dissenting point of view, and then they’re ready to call it a day all in the name of objective journalism. If only we had some investigative journalists with some cajones, as well as a Congress with some too, this Administration could be held accountable for the mushroom cloud of lies, yes lies, they unleashed in the run up to the Iraq War. As you say Col. Lang, “[t]his is not something new.”

  2. Cold War Zoomie says:

    The well ran dry a few weeks ago – I cannot think of anything else to say about any subject.
    So, it’s time to just read for awhile. This is interesting and related to this post’s picture:
    The Zenger Case
    I hope others enjoy it, too.

  3. kim says:

    not surprisingly, we’re looking for solutions from the wrong perspective. there are way lotsa good investigative journalists doing good work on many issues in many areas.
    we have a shortage of readers prepared to seek out and understand the reported truth in the newish forms it’s going to take. but that’s changing.
    this journal, f’rinstance, is somewhat different than it used to be.

  4. LG says:

    “Take a look at the way newspapers hostile to the union cause were treated by the Lincoln Administrations” pl.
    However they were treated, I suspect they were lucky they did not live in the Confederacy. Here in Texas, unionist sympathizere were simply taken out and lynched.

  5. Cieran says:

    Colonel Lang:
    With all due respect, I’d suggest that it’s high time to consider the notion that you are an excellent example of the free press in this country, and thus you ought to be accorded the respect and the First Amendment protections you earn for the work you do here (and similarly for other such trustworthy outlets available on the web).
    We all too often seem to be operating under the assumption that the institution of “the media” is what Rupert Murdoch decides it should be, but I’d suggest that we ought to get our relevant institutional definitions from proven American sources (e.g., Tom Paine, whose ghost probably visits SST daily) instead of via effete plutocrats from down under.
    The corporate media hasn’t provided all that much in the way of understanding, insight, or knowledge in many years, and that’s why it’s getting its ass kicked by alternative media sources such as SST. At best, the big media outlets provide only information and data (and heavily filtered stuff at that), and it’s no stretch to note that everyone I know does their serious thinking after they’ve read a variety of trusted sites like yours.
    And nobody in their right mind believes verbatim what they read in the NY Times or what they see on Fox. We’ve all watched enough episodes of the X-Files so that we just aren’t that credulous of a nation anymore…
    Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School wrote a great book (The Innovator’s Dilemma) about the general topic of displacing old markets with new ones, but the summary version here is that the corporate media is at best a sustaining technology that is now collapsing under its own weight, while yours is an excellent example of the disruptive technology that will take its place in the near-enough future.
    Or if you like, they are the dinosaurs, you are one of the mammals, and the Iraq war was the asteroid that just hit, sealing their doom while guaranteeing the success of SST and its various slblings and progeny.
    Ain’t information technology great?

  6. Steve says:

    At the risk of sounding alarmist, in many ways our media functions as a far more effective propaganda tool than what was/is in effect in certain totalitarian states.
    I say more effective, because certainly many Americans believe that we have a free press. To the extent that our press has the right to print things critical of the govt., Americans are correct. But to the extent that the press normally does so, the public is incorrect.
    So, in some way the received ideology of a “free press” is more insidious. In totalitarian states, the public at least knew where the press stood.

  7. John Howley says:

    Dan Rather explains the structural and ownership factors behind the declining quality of television news.
    He explains how the Administration perspective pre-invasion was presented as a well-elaborated narrative of connected dots.
    The dissident views were presented as disjointed and marginal (i.e., they made no sense to the public). Anyone attempting to “connect the dots” against the war was accused of “editorializing.”
    And he’s reasonably contrite.

  8. LG says:

    Speaking of Dan Rather, Mary Mapes (in her book Truth and Duty) does a good job of detailing just how fast CBS caved in to pressure to disavow the whole “Bush skated out of his National Guard committment” story, even though it was much better vetted than most of the public has been led to believe. Basically, CBS just refused to allow the journalists who had worked on the story to defend it.

  9. robt willmann says:

    In the above notes, the Colonel, bcb, and Steve make accurate observations.
    If a news outlet is actually independent, it can be influenced by advertisers and a government’s denial of access and favorable regulatory rulings.
    The news media has become an oligopoly and oligarchy, courtesy of no antitrust enforcement and the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
    Moreover, a serious social defect in the U.S. is that many people mistakenly think that the media is “independent” in its reporting. Steve correctly says in his comment that propaganda is more effective in the U.S. than in totalitarian countries because folks here think they are receiving “news” from organizations which act only objectively, as best as that can be humanly accomplished, and never waiver from that principle. Although skeptical about politicians and lawyers, we think that those in the news business are pure as the driven snow, and thus we are easy “marks”.
    I have a more street-level view of current media.
    The large U.S. media organizations were and are active, knowing promoters of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and active, knowing users of the September 2001 events as a propaganda device to get those wars started and to push for the bad legislation that has emerged since 2001. This has been done not because of government pressure, but because these organizations want the same things to happen that the executive branch and its enablers do.
    In addition to the obvious content, and indicator of this is that the same “talking heads” have appeared over and over again for the last seven years, without the appearance of articulate spokespersons to the contrary. The people who appear on the news, and the subjects covered, are not ordered there by God. None of us can call up a TV network and demand to appear and then be granted air time to appear. One person who did slip in was Gen. William Odom, may he rest in peace, who appeared on National Public Radio and on the PBS News Hour once that I am aware of. How often did Edward Said, a Palestinian and one of only eight specially honored “University Professors” at Columbia University before his death from cancer, get broadcast time? Or Gore Vidal, one of our most skillful artists of the English language and a steadfast critic of administration policy?
    This is nothing new on the national or local level. A number of years ago, a District Attorney in San Antonio was acting somewhat independently, and so one of the two newspapers in town decided to go after him. A reporter I knew who worked for that paper admitted that he was ordered by his editor to write as many negative stories about the DA that he could, which he did. An attack on the DA disguised as a news story appeared every few days during election year, and he lost the election.
    The New York Times is more subtle in its propaganda, but that propaganda is just as focused and intentional on matters it is promoting.
    The media oligopoly and oligarchy is especially dangerous. It exists primarily because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and FCC rulings that changed the old rule that you could own only one FM and AM radio signal in one market, and one TV station, and no cross-ownership of newspapers. That also kept the price of the broadcast stations down. However, when media mergers began in earnest after the 1996 Act, the prices of the media properties skyrocketed to artificially high levels. That immediately created absolute barriers to entry by all potential owners except companies with access to huge levels of financing.
    The actual cost of an FM radio transmitter and a workable tower to cover a good area is surprisingly low. But today, the price of a radio station reflects the oligopoly allowed by Congress in the 1996 Act, the FCC in its 3-2 rulings, and the complete lack of antitrust enforcement by the federal Justice Department.
    If you take a week or two, free up your mind, and do not assume that what you are seeing and hearing and reading in the media is principled, but reflects conscious propaganda, you will be suprised at how much you will discern.
    And just think about how little you would know about the events of the last seven years if there was no Internet.

  10. Mad Dogs says:

    Totally OT here Pat, but certainly a topic that has been of interest to us all – – War with Iran, is it getting closer?
    You might want to check out these most interesting posts:
    Steve Clemon’s blog The Washington NoteAlert?! Cheney Winning the Inside Battles Again
    Jim Lobe’s blog LobeLog.comWar? – Olmert Hints U.S. Action on Iran Nukes is Near
    Then tell me you don’t get shivers up your spine.

  11. Mike G says:

    A threat of denial of access to government officials
    I never quite understood why this was much of a threat. Government officials rarely provide anything other than a recitation of preprogrammed talking points and predictable PR blather, and the mainstream media rarely do more than recite what they say with no analysis. It reminds me of the news media in titalitarian states like North Korea, where the Dear Leader’s every meeting with a minor foreign official or staged visit to a tractor factory is treated as major news.
    There’s negligible news value in hearing another worthless hack in the Chimp administration robotically proclaim that everything is great with Iraq, the economy or anything else.

  12. kim says:

    cieran, that’s in the direction of what i was trying to say. but also,it’s not just our good editor, the good colonel. (though we value his leadership, and space and tolerance) we’re all contributors, and journalism has become a dialogue.
    is becoming.
    i could be wrong (i’m only a wee bit smarter than friedman. ok, a couple o wee bits.) but it seems to me that, even in here,
    some of us are contributing to this new journalism while still giving your *corporate media*, credit for more than entertainment value.
    that’ll *change* though

  13. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    The issue of media concentration is outlined at, for example:
    Some advocacy groups dealing with the issue at:
    A former President of the United States has been candid enough to point to “pro-Israel” media bias:
    Here is an advocacy group’s analysis of pro-Israel bias, as an example:

  14. Patrick Lang says:

    Mike G
    It is not information that is wanted from contact with government officials. It is the ability to put them on the air.
    That is the “get.” pl

  15. mike says:

    LG says: “Here in Texas, unionist sympathizere were simply taken out and lynched.”
    Yet Sam Houston was a Union sympathizer. Why was he not lynched?
    Later his son, Sam Junior, although eligible for a commission, enlisted in the 2nd Texas Volunteers and was wounded at Shiloh.
    Sam Senior saw his son off at Galveston. He famously asked the entire Regiment whether the Judge Campbell and Williamson S Oldham (arch secessionists who had called him a traitor to the south) were present. “No”, they cried. He then asked if the son of Judge Campbell was present. They roared back that Young Campbell was in Paris, going to school.

  16. TomB says:

    Seems to me that the press is about as free as one will ever see it and the problem isn’t the media. After all, if there was a clamour for more Newshour shows or C-Spans or etc., what’s stopping our famously opportunistic businessmen and women from putting same on? Taking off from what Rick has noted, it would clearly seem to be a lack of profits, which after all only follow from a lack of demand.
    The simple fact would seem to be that people just aren’t that interested, and the invention of television and etc. have only confirmed that as a species we are primarily visually-oriented, with the visual not exactly being the most thought-provoking medium. (And indeed may be a medium that is actually somewhat hostile to reflective thought, which leads me at least to wonder about the wisdom of all the fantastic focus today by the schools to do ever more via audio-visual equipment, computers and like.)
    There’s a wonderful book out written some years ago but even more relevant today I think called “Amusing Ourselves To Death” by a guy named Postman which I just can’t recommend enough for anyone interested. Of course the premise is somewhat given away by the title to the effect that damn near everthing serious is now rendered amusement by TV, and I know that I avoided it because it sounded like one of those books where once you understood the premise you didn’t think there was much else to say. But I can’t emphasize enough how much the book sparkles with unexpected lines of thought and insight. While the guy is a genuinely serious thinker (and erudite as hell to boot), the book is anything but a slog. In fact it’s one of those books that can kind of become part of your permanent mental library that you are always reminded of.
    In any event seems to me its always seductive to find someone else to blame, but like Pogo said, maybe the enemy, again, is us.

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