A Free Press

The first ten amendments to our constitution are known as our Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment guarantees rights to freedoms of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly and petition.  In the 17th Century the medium by which information was disseminated the printed press, books, newspapers and magazines.  Technological advancements through the centuries have created media that includes film, radio, television, internet along with print information.

The right to a free press was soon tested when Americans were divided in their sentiment toward Revolutionary France.  President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton (Federalists) were in opposition to the pro-French faction led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Democratic-Republicans). Newspapers became the battleground for influencing public opinion.

BACKGROUND Adams’ Federalist Congress enacted the Alien & Sedition Acts 1798. The first three acts dealt with immigrant deportation and voter suppression and the fourth Sedition Act, which outlawed criticism of the president, infringed upon a free press.  The courts did not rule on this legislation but popular opposition to these laws contributed to the demise of the Federalist Party.

The First Amendment provides us with a fourth branch of government, a Free Press, also known as the Fourth Estate, that investigates and reports on use and abuse of power. A tool of authoritarian rule is to delegitimize, attack and silence a free press.  The following review of Twentieth Century Presidencies  demonstrates the importance of a free public discourse.

Twentieth Century Americans experienced major conflicts:

  • wars to protect democracy (World War I, World War II, Cold War, Korean War, Viet Nam War, Wars in the Middle East, terrorism domestic and global)
  • pure capitalism vs regulated economy and unions (Captains of Industry or Robber Barons vs. the fight of organized labor)
  • states legislation vs national legislation (civil rights, worker’s rights, etc.)

Media has been used by Presidents to communicate with “We The People”.  Free media reported, investigated and analyzed the policies, actions and facts behind all of these conflicts.  Presidents of both political parties have had to deal with the criticism of a Free Press.

The Twentieth Century began with progressive men and women protesting against the abuses and negatives of pure capitalism.  Progressive “Muckrakers” wrote exposés in newspapers, magazines and books. The first President of the Twentieth Century, Theodore Roosevelt, embraced progressive ideology and created a progressive wing within the Republican Party.

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) Roosevelt’s Progressive Party promised a “Square Deal”. He called for government intervention to challenge the excesses of industrial capitalism, protect the environment, and protect rights of workers. His policies broke up monopolies and earned him the nickname “Trust Buster”. Roosevelt’s foreign policy was put forth in a letter written to Henry L Sprague, “speak softly and a big stick. You will go far”.  He viewed “Big Stick Diplomacy” as necessary to protect the United States from European intervention in the Americas.

Republican President Taft (1909-1913) Taft continued Roosevelt’s progressive policies, though he turned to more conservative policies toward the end of his term.

Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) Wilson ran on a progressive platform which asked for a “New Freedom”, and once elected went before Congress in support of progressive reforms. Congress passed laws that regulated monopolies, lowered tariffs, introduced a personal income tax, and instituted the Federal Reserve System. Congress passed child labor laws that were negated by a Supreme Court ruling. He first opposed women’s suffrage, but reversed his position ultimately supporting and helping to pass the 19th Amendment.

Three Republican Presidents governed from 1921 -1933, the “Roaring Twenties.  Though Republicans held the Presidency, misuse of power occurred in both Parties, the difference between “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”

Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) favored pro-business policies and limited immigration. His administration was scandal ridden, with Teapot Dome, etc.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) brought back stability and respectability to the Presidency.  He supported pro-business, laissez-faire policies that contributed to the Great Depression of 1929 that began with in September of that year with the Stock Market Crash.

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) was known as a great humanitarian but did not believe in government intervention to stop the downward spiral of the American economy, underestimating the severity of the crisis.

The next thirty-six years marked the dominance of the Democratic Party in which the Presidency was held by only one republican.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) Roosevelt was a Democratic progressive who followed in the steps of his cousin Theodore. He ran on a “New Deal” platform.  Once elected, he quickly implemented emergency measures to halt the collapse the banking industry. He proposed innovative recovery programs which were passed with the help of a Democratic Congress.  Roosevelt’s economy was based on Keynesian principles that government must regularly fuel the economy to encourage employment and create consumer buying power. He established anti-poverty measures and Unemployment Insurance and Social Security Insurance.

President Roosevelt was an excellent communicator. Over his X years in office, the longest tenure of any American President, he used the emerging technology of radio to speak directly to the people of the entire nation by way of “fireside chats” to unite, calm and encourage America. The addresses reached a beleaguered nation in the depths of The Great Depression. In his inaugural address, he made the famous statement “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Roosevelt continued to use radio to stay in touch with America.

The United States was drawn into global affairs when Fascists led by Hitler and Mussolini came to power in most of Europe, threatening England. President Roosevelt supported England and entered into a Lend-Lease program to supply arms to Allied forces but America officially remained neutral.

In 1937, CBS sent Robert E. Murrow and a team of reporters to provide coverage on the spread of Nazi Power in Europe. He provided on-the-scene reports of the constant bombing of London by Nazi forces, the blitzkrieg.  Still many Americans wanted to remain neutral and out of European wars. On December 7, 1941 Imperial Japan attacked United States military forces on American territory on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The following day President Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress that was          was radio broadcast live to the nation. In his “Day in Infamy Speech” he asked                  Congress for a declaration of war.  One hour later, the Senate voted unanimously and the House of Representatives voted 388 to 1 in favor. Four days later Nazi Germany declared war against the United States. Isolationism was no longer an option.

The United States quickly mobilized our economy and fighting forces. Men and women served in the military.  Women became a major component of home front defenses and manufacturing.  A united America followed news of the war through radio, newspapers and newsreel movies at local theater.  Prewar journalists became war correspondents who were often embedded and placed their lives on the line.   Ernie Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist who worked as a roving correspondent, died reporting from Okinawa, Japan in 1945.  Media had a unifying effect as our eyes and ears to the world and at home.

Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) took office upon the death of a newly reelected fourth term FDR on April 12, 1945. Only Eighty-two days into his Vice Presidency, Truman, who had not been briefed, inherited enormous challenges both in domestic affairs and          foreign affairs upon taking his new office. In domestic affairs Truman protected and reinforced New Deal reforms, began the process of desegregation of the military, banned discrimination in the civil service, commissioned a federal report on civil rights and opened the topic of discrimination for the nation, as a whole.   He also made a wartime decision to use the atomic bomb to bring an end to the war in the Pacific, ending the second world war.

Post-World War II the United States became the leader of the Western World.              Truman’s Doctrine was to contain Soviet influence, rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan and supported the creation of NATO. At home, he navigated the difficult transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. In 1946, he signed an executive order that desegregated the American Armed Services.  Truman was the first President to deliver a televised State of the Union and regularly appear on the new medium of television.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 1961) General Eisenhower commanded the victorious Allied forces in Europe. As a general, he had no partisan history. Both parties saw him as a desirable candidate.  As President he brought about a truce between North and South Korea, continued to support NATO, relied on the threat of atomic weapons to deter international conflicts, and used the CIA in covert operations in the intensifying Cold War with the USSR. His domestic policies were centrist. He supported some federal programs    while being a fiscal conservative.

Eisenhower sent federal forces to desegregate a Little Rock. Arkansas High School in 1957. Live television brought this clash between states-rights and the national government into American living rooms.

John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)  John F. Kennedy’s campaign slogan was “A time for greatness”.  Kennedy’s short term in office was inspirational to the youth of our nation. He opened his televised inaugural address with “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.  He closed his address with “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” calling for service to others. Kennedy’s economic policies were moderate. During his short term in office he established the Peace Corps to counter the The Ugly American image exposed in the political novel written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958. In 1961 he expanded the space program and committed to “landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade” to win the space race.

Kennedy authorized CIA covert plans formulated during Eisenhower’s term. The Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles was a terrible miscalculation. However, in The Cuban Missile Crisis, diplomatic negotiations that lasted thirteen days avoided nuclear war. The whole world that followed the news on television breathed a sigh of relief. Just four months before his assassination and after over eight years of negotiations he signed the   Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

President Kennedy’s appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General.   Robert Kennedy had to deal with the Civil Rights Movement.   The movement was led by Martin Luther King a proponent of nonviolence and civil disobedience as means of protest.   Peaceful protests met with violence. The president authorized his Attorney General to use  federal forces to support integration.  Television coverage of the violence,  beatings, lynching showed powerful images that helped gain national support for integration of the South.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) Lyndon Johnson was a Representative and Majority Leader of the Senate prior to his becoming Kennedy’s Vice-President.  In the first year of  his Presidency, he used his legislative knowledge and relationship to obtain the passage of Kennedy’s sponsored Civil Rights Act (1964) and tax cuts.  The political cost of signing the Civil Rights Act was the flipping of the of the Democratic Solid South  to a Republican Solid South.  Bill Moyers cites LBJ’s opinion, “I think we just delivered the      South the Republican Party for a long time to come”.

LBJ, as he preferred to be called, was elected in his own right by a mandate of 61%.  His goal was to Build a “Great Society”.  His massive legislative agenda was quickly passed by Congress, creating social programs to fight poverty,  support education, arts and the humanities, called for urban renewal,  amended Social Security to provide Healthcare for the elderly (Medicare) and created the Voting Rights Act Act (1968). LBJ intensified Eisenhower and Kennedy anti-communist policies in Viet Nam which led to anti-war protests. Media coverage of the war changed public opinion of many young Americans.

The 1970’s Republican Party included the Solid South, a strong coalition that gave Republicans control of the Presidency for twenty of the following years twenty-four years, broken by the post-Watergate election of Democrat Jimmy Carter.

President Richard M. Nixon (1969 – 1974)  Though he had some accomplishments in foreign policy, The Vietnam War was becoming unpopular.  Nixon’s policy of “peace with honor” extended a war that was not to be won. Watergate defined his Presidency.  Nixon was impeached by  a Republican held House of Representatives but resigned before he could be tried by the Senate.  Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, won the Pulitzer Prize for their investigative reporting on this scandal.  Live television covered the Watergate hearings.

President Gerald Ford (1974-1977)  President Gerald Ford first action was to pardon Nixon. He inherited an economy that was experiencing high inflation which led a severe recession.

President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) Was a moderate Democrat.  He had to deal with many challenges – inflation, energy crisis, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, hostages being held by Iran and a failed rescue mission. Though Jimmy Carter did bring stability and honesty to the Presidency, he lost his bid for reelection to the dynamic Republican, Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)  Ronald Reagan brought the nation further to the right but was moderate relative to present extremism. In his inaugural address he pledged to reduce government intrusion in economics and social orders. “Reaganomics” was a return to a trickle down economy which gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations in the belief that increased profits  would transfer to an increase in employment and wages. He increased military spending and protected Social Security.  Reagan’s Foreign Policy strongly opposed the spread of Communism, calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. The Iran-Contra scandal occurred during Reagan’s second term.  Senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, which was against an arms embargo enacted by a Democratic Congress.  Investigative journalism led to further investigations. Congressional hearings were held.

President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)  President George H.W. Bush was more moderate than Reagan. He stressed traditional American values to achieve a “kinder gentler nation”. He ordered military actions in Panama and Persian Gulf. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and a revolution dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991.

President William J. Clinton (1993 – 2001)  Though a Democrat in ideology, Clinton incorporated some Republican policies such as NAFTA, free trade and deregulated banking. He raised taxes on higher income tax payers, cut defense spending., and oversaw a strong economy. He was not successful in enacting healthcare reform, but under his leadership Congress enacted many progressive reforms. His foreign policy was shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union which made the United States the only superpower. President Clinton experienced failures in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda.  The Clinton Doctrine was the belief that it was necessary for the United States to intervene to provide global security and stability through unilaterally or in conjunction with  the UN and NATO. President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representative but acquitted by the Senate on charges of lying under oath when he testified to a grand jury on the Monica Lewinski case.  Post-Watergate investigatory and opinion journalism vigorously executed the power of a free media in covering the Clinton Administration.

It is important to be realistic about the Twentieth century; the United States has experienced difficult periods.  We the People of the United States elected Presidents that were progressives or conservatives.  Using the movement of a pendulum as model for political movement, the US has changed directions in the past to avoid extremes (McCarthyism, Watergate).  In an appearance on BBC NEWS, Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the US, “is not experiencing the best of times – but the pendulum will swing back.” The force that moves the pendulum is a free press, the Fourth estate. Justice Ginsburg also stated “I read the Washington Post and the New York Times every day. I think that reporters are trying to tell the public the way things are. That story (Watergate) might never have come out if we didn’t have the free press that we do.”

Twenty-First Century citizens of the United Sates must join a free press and vote to reject  reactionary movements that are trying to tear down our democratic institutions and Twentieth Century progress.


“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited                    without being lost”  –  President Thomas Jefferson


          “The Government power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so  that it could the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”  –  Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black


          “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”                                                                                                         –   Newscaster Walter Cronkite


  “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an                 open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”  –  President John F. Kennedy