First Amendment and Mass Media

January 21, 1970

Report Outline
Debate Over Fairness of News Media
Press Freedom: Origin and Limitations
Problems of Government and the Media

Debate Over Fairness of News Media

The federal government and the country's purveyors of news are currently engaged in one of those contests of wills that have so often marked their relations since the nation was founded. However, television gives the present contest a new dimension. As broadcasters of news, TV and radio are partners of the press, but as government-licensed enterprises they are somewhat less free than the press. Only months before the news media came under attack from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, the Supreme Court denied the long-standing contention of radio-television journalists that they had the same First Amendment rights as other newsmen.

“Differences in news media justify differences in First Amendment standards applied to them,” Justice Byron R. White said on behalf of a unanimous (7–0) Court in the landmark Red Lion case. The Court held that because the air waves are public property, broadcasters cannot exclude whomever they choose from using their facilities. Even for the press, the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression have never been interpreted by the Supreme Court as “absolute” rights. Anyone who slanders or libels another person may be sued; obscene words are not entitled to constitutional protection, nor are “fighting words” which provoke others to attack. But the press is subject to no government controls other than any that may be applied in indirect and subtle ways. Thus it feels less vulnerable than television to the criticism of high government officials.

Agnew's Criticism of Press and Tv as Biased

Accusing the commercial television networks of biased reporting, Agnew asserted before the Midwest Regional Republican Committee at Des Moines, Nov. 13, 1969, that a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men”—network news executives and commentators in New York and Washington—enjoyed “a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by the government.” A particular sore point, he indicated, was the “instant analysis and querulous criticism” of television commentators and reporters that immediately followed a broadcast address in which President Nixon had informed the nation, Nov. 3, of his plans on the Viet Nam War.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 16, 2004  Broadcast Indecency
Mar. 28, 2003  Movie Ratings
Nov. 17, 1995  Sex, Violence and the Media
Feb. 19, 1993  School Censorship
Dec. 20, 1991  The Obscenity Debate
Dec. 07, 1990  Does Cable TV Need More Regulation?
May 16, 1986  Pornography
Jan. 04, 1985  The Modern First Amendment
Oct. 19, 1979  Pornography Business Upsurge
Mar. 09, 1979  Broadcasting's Deregulated Future
Mar. 21, 1973  Pornography Control
May 17, 1972  Violence in the Media
Jan. 21, 1970  First Amendment and Mass Media
Jul. 05, 1967  Prosecution and the Press
Jun. 28, 1961  Peacetime Censorship
Apr. 12, 1961  Censorship of Movies and TV
Dec. 23, 1959  Regulation of Television
Jul. 29, 1959  Control of Obscenity
Jul. 27, 1955  Bad Influences on Youth
Mar. 21, 1952  Policing the Comics
Apr. 12, 1950  Censorship of Motion Pictures
Sep. 20, 1939  Censorship of Press and Radio
Freedom of Information
Freedom of Speech and Press
Radio and Television