- Historic Sites
To Fix The Press
Forty-seven years ago the Hutchins Commission issued the results of the most serious effort ever to define the duties of a free press. The free press was not grateful.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
None of this happened. Instead most of the press responded irately. Editorial pages denounced the commission’s ignorance, stressing the absence on it of a single journalist, its slapdash research, ivory-tower abstraction, left-wing sympathies, and an impenetrable writing style. The Chicago Tribune summarized the report under the headline ‘A FREE PRESS’ (HITLER STYLE) SOUGHT FOR U.S. The Wall Street Journal hinted that responsibility in the document was a code word for “censorship.” The New York Times publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, declared that critics of the American press were predominantly “Communists and fellow travelers.”
The report disappointed its benefactor too. Luce wrote Hutchins that the analysis merited “a gentleman’s ’C’ and no more” and added that “each member of the Commission could have done better by himself than has been done for or by the whole Commission.” Privately he spoke of the report’s “appalling lack of even high school logic.”
Over the years since its publication, A Free and Responsible Press has influenced the academic study of journalism, providing the underpinnings of the “social responsibility” theory of the press. Its influence on the practice of journalism, however, is cloudier. The National News Council partly answered the commission’s call for a press-watching organization, but it lasted only from 1973 to 1984. The former Boston Globe editor Michael Janeway says that during twenty-three years as a reporter and editor he never heard anyone mention the Hutchins commission.
At the group’s final meeting, the Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr., took snapshots, completing a roll of film he had started on his newborn twin granddaughters. Eight months after the report was issued, Chafee sent copies of the meeting photos to his fellow alumni. “The twins,” he observed in an accompanying letter, “are now crawling around the floor at a great rate, but the Commission has vanished into the void. . . .”