Americans hold few principles more firmly than our commitment to a free press. We protect it as critical to the operation of our democratic political process, and we celebrate it as essential to the vitality of our free society.
Yet neither the full meaning of a free press nor the actual character of the press itself had fully matured at the time of the nation's founding. America's newspapers in 1776 barely resembled those of today in either form or content, and the legal understanding of the freedom owed to the press was just as poorly developed.
For example, in recent years both conservatives and liberals have argued that the "mainstream media" has lost its objectivity and become biased toward the other side. But at the time of our nation's birth, all American newspapers were highly partisan. They had no sense whatsoever that their primary responsibility ought to be simply to report the news, or to provide a balanced and objective analysis of events. They believed it was their duty to engage fully, and without apology, on one side or the other of the political disputes that surrounded them. On the legal side of the equation, the American courts, and most American political theorists, believed that "freedom of the press" meant only the freedom to publish, not the freedom from prosecution if a newspaper's content proved offensive.
The evolution of America's newspapers and the evolution of our legal understanding of their freedoms have occurred side by side. But it has not been a simple, linear process. By the middle of the nineteenth century, America's newspapers shed their partisan excess, but only by reaching out to the interests—often the vulgar interests—of the mass urban audience. They traded partisanship for sensationalism, political affiliation for the shallowness and indulgence of the tabloid. And when the newspapers of the early twentieth century finally adopted a more sober, balanced tone, they were driven as much by the demands of their business character and affiliations as by their commitments to a more responsible form of journalism.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court heard a series of cases after 1919 that helped to clarify just how free the press really was. Over time, the court's definition of press freedom broadened substantially; older laws that made it easy to punish offending publications for libel, obscenity, and even sedition gradually gave way to a more liberal understanding of press freedom. The First Amendment protections offered to journalists were still not absolute; editors and publishers still could face legal sanctions if they printed articles deemed maliciously defamatory toward individuals, flagrantly offensive to community standards of decency, or clearly dangerous to national security. Still, the trend in America's legal evolution was clearly toward a broader interpretation of freedom of the press. In the 1960s and '70s, journalists protected by the First Amendment exposed embarrassing secrets of the government's mismanagement of the Vietnam War (in the so-called "Pentagon Papers") and even brought down a president (Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal). By the late twentieth century, the First Amendment was generally held to cover everything from the buttoned-down Wall Street Journal to the tarted-up National Enquirer.
Some might argue that we are only now getting it right—that America's newspapers and the protections they need are only now reaching full maturity in American society. But if true, these developments are occurring just as American newspapers confront their most serious challenge ever. The rise of the internet has destroyed traditional sources of advertising revenue, forcing newspaper closures, staff reductions, and a mad scramble to figure out how the newspaper as an institution can survive in the digital age. Some newspapers have embraced the challenge, while others have simply shut down their presses—but if the history of the newspaper tells us anything, it is that while its form may change, the market for the news will persist and a group of journalistic entrepreneurs will rise to make sure the public gets the kind of news it wants to read.