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Looking back at 1947’s “A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines and Books.”

An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee that Redefined Freedom of the Pressby Stephen Bates (Yale University Press: 2020), 336 pages.

A self-appointed, blue-ribbon panel styling itself the “Commission on Freedom of the Press” issued a wide-ranging report covering fake news, the concentration of media ownership, public access to the means of communication, hate speech, and the role of government, in 1947. In a recent book, Stephen Bates, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, records the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among the members of the commission, which produced “a short book that’s still read, quoted and remembered” by those who care about media today.

Of course, the report is most assuredly a product of its time, when dominant media technologies were quite different from those of today. But what does give the report a contemporary feel is the good cop-bad cop warnings that the press was endangering the public, that unless the press became more “responsible,” as defined by the commission, the public might rise up in reaction and gut the First Amendment. One hears an echo in modern threats by officials who say internet platforms must purge “hate speech,” “fake news,” and “misinformation”—or face retaliation.

Media baron Henry Luce created and funded the commission, and then later opposed its report. Chairman Robert Maynard Hutchins, the celebrity president of the University of Chicago, recruited his fellow commissioners from among his prestigious connections. One of the most famous was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though his influence was less than that of other commissioners who are not named in the title of Bates’s book. The members of the commission were prominent academic and intellectual types, not working journalists or publishers. Hutchins himself was often preoccupied with work on other committees, and with domestic drama, so other commissioners took up the slack.

Many on the commission were former New Dealers from FDR’s administration. They didn’t like the fact than many big newspaper bosses were anti-New Deal, and deplored the media’s alleged bias against federal power. As an example of a topic it believed the media over-emphasized in its coverage at the expense of more “significant” subjects, the commission mentioned “quarrels among public officials.” As Bates points out, the commission’s report notably did not list a “watchdog” function as among the purposes of the press.

The commission itself passed up the chance to be a watchdog on the government. Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and one of the despised conservative press bosses, unsuccessfully asked the commission to investigate wartime discrimination against his paper. In fact, two commissioners, the poet-bureaucrat Archibald MacLeish and Harold D. Lasswell, a law professor and sociologist, had recommended (also unsuccessfully) that the Roosevelt administration prosecute the Tribune for sedition.

The commission’s report described the contemporary media situation as notably different from the Founding era, when any citizen could get or hire a printing press to publish his sentiments. By 1947, in the commission’s view, the news was in the hands of concentrated media empires (like McCormick’s), which denied many people with valuable ideas the chance to get their views before the public. To counteract this, the commission said the press should regard itself as a “common carrier” for alternative opinions, though without the government regulation usually accompanying common carrier status. Commissioners made clear that they wouldn’t want just anyone to have a media platform—just people they considered responsible. Drawing the line seemed to be as difficult then as for would-be media reformers today.

The report made comparatively few calls for government intervention, contenting itself with the threat of censorial public backlash if the press ignored the commission’s voluntary solutions. This relegation of government censorship to a vaguely threatened last resort, rather than a first resort, can be credited to two commissioners who were sympathetic to free speech and entrepreneurial freedom. Zechariah Chafee Jr., vice chairman of the commission, was a Harvard Law School professor and free-expression advocate who had significantly influenced the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence. John Dickinson was a law professor and railroad lawyer who had helped create Roosevelt’s monopoly-promoting National Recovery Administration. Coincidentally or not, Dickinson wanted to protect press companies against antitrust suits, a remedy considered by other commissioners. Chafee and Dickinson blocked the antitrust idea, and other censorship proposals, which they thought created the risk of arbitrary federal enforcement against media dissent.

Of the modest legal changes the commission did recommend, two were particularly significant. To deal more efficiently with press falsehoods, the libel laws should be replaced with a right to demand a retraction. And the federal government should fill gaps in press coverage by conducting informational (propaganda) programs at home and abroad, something the government has certainly done without needing any encouragement from the commissioners.

Chairman Hutchins had been an isolationist before World War II. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that some of the research for the Manhattan Project had been done at his own University of Chicago, Hutchins thought it would promote peace if the United States shared the A-bomb with the Soviets. The commissioners, being liberal internationalists, blamed the growing tension among nations in large part on a lack of communication. Therefore, they suggested, the press had a vital role to play in encouraging the peoples of the world to “live together in peace.” Though the threat of a devastating nuclear war has only grown worse since 1947, the vision of the media as a peacemaker seems to have receded into the background.

The commission urged the promotion of racial harmony at home to complement peace abroad. Readers, it proposed, should be given balanced portrayals of races other than their own, not simply (for example) out-of-context crime reports. At the same time, the commission rejected “group libel laws,” forerunners of modern “hate speech” restrictions. Group libel laws “might be used to suppress legitimate public controversy,” the commission foresaw.

How else should the press and the public promote press responsibility without government censorship? The report encouraged the competing press entities to criticize each other rather than hush up each other’s faults. This recommendation, at least, has been carried out today. A private press council, in the commission’s view, ought to be set up on an experimental ten-year basis, and would publish criticism when the press misbehaved. This recommendation has not been carried out in its original form, though there are now of course numerous “fact-checking” websites, some affiliated with existing media outlets.

The commissioners also called for journalism to be reconsidered a noble profession, not just a trade. Journalism schools, said the report, should give students a broad liberal education befitting the proposed exalted status of journalists. It was probably this recommendation which keeps the report still read today, at least by journalists. Now, when internet companies have a broad reach Colonel McCormick would have envied, there are again widespread calls for media responsibility, and the relevance of the Hutchins commission and its recommendations is a little clearer to those outside a J-school classroom.

Max Longley is a writer from North Carolina and the author of Quaker Carpetbagger (McFarland, 2020).

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