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To Fix The Press

June 2024
4min read

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.

During a board meeting at Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1942, Henry Luce, editor in chief of Time Inc., passed a note to the educator Robert M. Hutchins. “How,” Luce asked, “do I find out about the freedom of the press and what my obligations are?” Hutchins said he didn’t know. Luce persevered: What would Hutchins think of impaneling a committee of experts to analyze the rights and duties of the press? “If you’ll put up the money,” Hutchins replied, “I’ll organize the committee.”

Like Luce, who had cofounded Time magazine at twenty-four, Hutchins had made his mark early in life, becoming dean of Yale Law School at twenty-eight and president of the University of Chicago at thirty. Also like Luce, Hutchins had a vigorous intellect, a fondness for unorthodox ideas, and the self-assurance to implement them. “There are two ways to have a great university—it must either have a great football team or a great president,” he declared in 1939, and proceeded to abolish Chicago’s football program.

To study the American press, Hutchins recruited a dozen intellectual luminaries, including the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the poet (and Librarian of Congress) Archibald MacLeish. At seventeen meetings over the next three years, Chairman Hutchins and the other members refined their critique of American journalism. The Commission on Freedom of the Press, as Hutchins named it, considered its subject perilously shallow, sensationalist, closed-minded, and at times dishonest. Assessing its performance, Hutchins later remarked, the members “felt a little sad.”

How could the press be improved? The philosopher William E. Hocking considered “the service of news” too important to leave entirely to private enterprise; the government should step in. Hocking also floated what he termed a “quixotic” proposal to add a preamble to the Bill of Rights that would stipulate that “the enjoyment of all rights in a free community depends on the good faith of those who claim them.” Niebuhr replied that making freedoms conditional would “destroy the Bill of Rights.”

Though most members weren’t inclined to retool the Bill of Rights, they did ponder an assortment of possible curbs on the press. Beardsley Ruml, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, recommended a licensing scheme: newspapers would obey an agency modeled on the Federal Communications Commission or lose the legal benefits of incorporation. Llewellyn White, a member of the Hutchins group’s staff, proposed making the intentional publication of falsehoods a federal crime, a notion he rather grandiosely likened to Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” Some commission members thought newspapers ought to be legally required to publish corrections or rebuttals. When the University of Pennsylvania law professor John Dickinson cautioned that such a law might discourage editors from publishing controversial columnists like the pugnacious conservative Westbrook Pegler, Niebuhr rejoined, “Let’s have it!”

In the end, though, the members decided against such legal strictures. Instead they sternly admonished the press to reform itself and warned that the failure to do so would make intrusive regulation inevitable. As they put it in their final report, “Freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom.”

The commission also urged the creation of a “new and independent agency to appraise and report annually upon the performance of the press.” Members repeatedly and affectionately returned to this notion, prompting Hutchins to observe that it had become “our single remedy for all ills.” “We don’t have startling recommendations,” Niebuhr responded, “but there is a lot of wholesome advice.”

To present that advice with literary panache, Hutchins asked MacLeish to write the report. The poet produced a draft imbued with what he termed “moral indignation.” It called the American newspaper a “vehicle of mass entertainment” that habitually ignored “developments of fundamental importance” in favor of “nightclub murders” and “over-wealthy and foolish women.” Founding a paper had grown so costly that “freedom of the press to the American people ... is roughly equivalent to freedom to take a rocket to the moon.” In access to ideas, MacLeish warned, Americans were “less free” than the citizens of other countries; the press was to blame.

Judging MacLeish’s draft far too inflammatory, Hutchins and his staff director, Robert D. Leigh, prepared and circulated a revision. Months passed; more revisions followed. Finally the ninth draft won the endorsement of all thirteen commission members. MacLeish, however, subsequently objected to the wording of one recommendation. “I could put in a page or two of denunciation of Archie for approving the statement at Chicago and disapproving it at the last minute,” Leigh wrote to another staff member. “But ... I have learned to be patient, and not to expect cooperation and compromise from the artistic temperament.” MacLeish was accommodated, and on March 26,1947, a year behind schedule, the commission issued its unanimous report.

A Free and Responsible Press , as it was titled, must have struck commission members as restrained and un-objectionable, given what they had discarded on the way: Hocking’s dilution of the Bill of Rights, Ruml’s FCC for newspapers, MacLeish’s blistering prose. They anticipated a grateful response from the press. Hutchins expected to be honored at journalism conferences, and commission members discussed the possibility that editors would beseech them to gather once again and create the press-watching agency they had advocated.

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. . . .”

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