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Freedom of Press and History of Journalism in America

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In recent months, the American political system experienced an upheaval of unprecedented events involving the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Also in recent months, the trust in news and media organizations has plummeted among Americans where only 32 percent have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is “the lowest level in Gallup polling history and is down eight percentage points from 2015.

Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media from Gallup polling.
Image from Gallup.

Needless to say, it only takes moments on social media or listening to leaders to reveal that the media is NOT portrayed in a golden light. The importance of keeping the press free so journalists can be ‘watchdogs’ and ‘gatekeepers’ is extremely high … so high that the overall structure of press freedom may be at risk … again.

Again? Take a step back before allowing clickbait headlines and dismal topics burn you out. Let’s analyze the origins and tests of press freedom throughout our history. Where and when did these freedoms start? In other words, what’s the history of American journalism, and how did it transform to what we are seeing today?

The Notion of Freedom of Press

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved,” wrote Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in The Pennsylvania Gazette.

The founders saw the federal government as a powerful entity; therefore, they developed a system of checks and balances for all branches. The press was considered an outlet to inform the people about what was happening within each branch. The press’ job was to present the facts to the public so that citizens would be aware of issues as well as be involved in politics.

After the Revolutionary War, the Founders debated various interpretations of freedom of speech and of press. James Madison revealed the original form of these freedoms by writing “the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty shall be inviolable.”

As the idea of freedom of speech and press was constructed, both Madison and Jefferson argued that stating or printing one’s opinions—whether they are true or false—did not fall into the federal government’s jurisdiction, and such regulation was not a function the government should perform.

(Source: digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu)

Sedition Act of 1798

England and France were in the midst of a heated war during the late 1790s, and Adams and the Federalists were in power. Because they believed war was imminent, they pushed for the Sedition Act of 1798, which was a test of governmental power over the freedom of press.

Image from “The alien and sedition acts” by Philip Kabranov & Patrick Embert.

Because newspapers tended to be partisan during this time, the Federalists used this Act to attack opposition, which included those newspapers aligned against them:

“Newspapers were highly partisan, and often existed principally to advance the interests of a particular political party. The government prosecuted the editors of the leading Republican newspapers, and succeeded in jailing many Republican editors and closing, at least temporarily, many Republican newspapers.”

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

How Times of War Influenced the Press

Civil War

As the Civil War began, “it was early recognized by the [Lincoln] Administration that the newspapers might be an effective agent in giving information to the South, as well as in encouraging their resistance. Therefore early in the war, measures were adopted which were intended to curb their activities. These measures may be classified as follows: Control of reporters, Censorship of the Telegraph System, Exclusion from the Mails, Closing of Newspaper Offices and the Arrest of Editors by Military Force.”

In what would be seen as shocking today, the Civil War period saw “more than 300 opposition newspapers in the North shut down” as well as the arrest of “many editors for publishing ‘disloyal’ speech.”

The Union held vast powers during the time of war over the press, and never again has such power and restraint recurred in our history. This, in turn, was a test of power of the federal government in controlling newspapers and what they printed due to wartime fears.

(Sources: Virginia Law Review and chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

Yellow Journalism

Another notable period did not involve the government controlling the press so much as it involved the press controlling the masses. The sensational stories about Spain’s control over Cuba influenced the public and government to become involved in this foreign conflict in the late 1890s.

According to the Office of the Historian: “Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century, it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States.”

Editorial cartoon by Leon Barritt, 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid (a popular cartoon character of the day), each pushing against opposite sides of a pillar of wooden blocks that spells WAR. This is a satire of the Pulitzer and Hearst newspapers' role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain.

Such sensational articles—mainly by Hearst and Pulitzer publishers—used dramatic, bold headlines, drawings of events, and “occasionally printing rousing stories that proved to be false.”

Overall, the press influenced ideas and involvement in foreign affairs and showed the impact and power held by the press.

World War I & II

American women protesting the sedition and espionage
acts at the White House between 1917 and 1918.

The American people didn’t want to partake in World War I. Because of such disdain for entering the War, President Woodrow Wilson needed to increase public approval for entering war, which involved government propaganda and holding the media accountable.

Because of this, another attempt at stifling press freedom was enacted under the Sedition Act of 1918—a distant cousin of the one in 1798.

“In effect, the government reenacted the Sedition Act of 1798. But whereas the 1798 act had a maximum penalty of two years in prison, the World War I statutes carried penalties ranging up to 20 years in prison. Most people convicted under these acts were sentenced to terms ranging from 10 to 20 years in prison. During World War I, some 2,000 individuals were prosecuted under these laws, including not only individual speakers, but publishers of newspapers and magazines.”

The Star-Bulletin's first edition on Dec. 8.

Unlike WWI that saw little enthusiasm from the American public, World War II differed in that the attack on Pearl Harbor awakened a mass frenzy to enter the War. Even so, the 1940s propelled the thought that “the government no longer thought it could (or should) convict individuals for criticizing the war unless their criticisms included false statements of fact. This was a major step forward in our First Amendment traditions.”

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

Post-September 11th

It’s argued that after the September 11th attacks, journalists were reporting in fear—not knowing when the next attack would be or where it would occur.

An article from The Atlantic titled, “They were far less concerned about civil liberties. Editors long ignored isolated reports that the United States was holding suspected terrorists in secret prisons. ‘We wouldn’t publish it even if we knew,’ a senior editor at a major American newspaper said when it was suggested that his paper devote its impressive investigative talent to exposing the secret prisons.”

Since then, the ‘digital revolution’ continues to impact news consumption where social media has made it possible to discover new information in mere seconds. Privacy concerns are on the rise, and traditional, print media outlets are under fire for losing a large part of their revenue streams as well as not successfully adapting to such a fast, visual and interactive, and impatient society.

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

What’s Next?

Fake news, Trump and Facebook—oh my!

Think how topsy-turvy the world is when trying to acquire factual and unbiased information. Trump declared “war on the media” due to alternative facts of his apparent success. Trust in the media is at a new time low. Fakes news seems to be influencing citizens more so than journalistic media outlets. These are just a few issues dealing with press freedom and how the media is portrayed in society.

Are we seeing the most censored time in press freedom? Perhaps it’s not the most censored time after reviewing the history of press freedom and past actions by the federal government.

In a Politico article titled “Trump is Making Journalism Great Again,” it stated, “In his own way, Trump has set us free. Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles. He has been explicit in his disdain for the press and his dislike for press conferences, prickly to the nth degree about being challenged and known for his vindictive way with those who cross him. So, forget about the White House press room. It’s time to circle behind enemy lines.”

History proves journalists were trialed, tested, hated, and loved over and over. Take advantage of the need for factual information in this digital age, and don’t let fear override the true role of the journalist—informing the public with honest, factual information so they aren’t left in the dark.


  1. Gallup, Inc. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup.com. N.p., 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx.
  2. David S. Bogen, The Origins of Freedom of Speech and Press, 42 Md. L. Rev. 429 (1983)
    Available at: digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/mlr/vol42/iss3/3
  3. Geoffrey R. Stone, “Freedom of the Press in Time of War,” 59 SMU Law Review 1663 (2006).
    Available at: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2955&context=journal_articles
  4. Carroll, Thomas F. “Freedom of Speech and of the Press during the Civil War.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 9, no. 7, 1923, pp. 516–551. jstor.org/stable/1065306.
  5. “Milestones: 1866–1898 – Office of the Historian.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism.
  6. Bonner, Raymond. “The Media and 9/11: How We Did.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 9 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/the-media-and-9-11-how-we-did/244818/.

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