Rising Judiciary-Press Tensions
Media's Fear of Basic Rights Slipping Away
From the Pentagon Papers to the Progressive magazine's atomic secrets case, the 1970s have seen a steady escalation in the tension between the government and the press in the United States. Tension between these two powerful institutions was built into the American system. The press was expected by the Founding Fathers to fill the important function of keeping citizens informed of the workings of the government. But the widespread skepticism and the new activism of journalists during the turbulent years of Vietnam and Watergate spawned an unprecedented number of collisions between the interests of government, the press and society.
A record number of these disputes found their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. From the court, the press in the 1970s has won several notable victories, chief among them the Pentagon Papers case. But on balance, the press has lost more cases than it has won. This record has evoked an outpouring of criticism of the court in the press — criticism which Justice William J. Brennan Jr. recently described as containing “a new and disturbing note of acrimony, almost bitterness.” For example, the president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, Allen H. Neuharth, told that organization's convention in April 1979 that the Supreme Court “has battered holes in the First Amendment big enough to drive the whole Constitution through.”
Underlying the uneasy relationship between the present court and the press is disagreement over the breadth of the First Amendment's guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ….” Does this guarantee set news people apart, granting them special privileges to acquire and publish information? Or does it simply assure every citizen the right to publish or broadcast his views?