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Freedom of the Press - The Press And Private Ownership

commercial corporate political court

Commercialization of the press began in the early twentieth century, eventually leading to corporate ownership of the media. Increasingly the line blurred between political and commercial activities and between public and commercial. Beginning in the 1970s, the courts increasingly extended First Amendment protections to corporate and commercial activities, regardless of their relationship to political debate, consistent with the "marketplace of ideas" doctrine expressed earlier in the century. This broadening, according to critics, opened the door to censorship of the press by shareholders and investors of corporations who own news organizations. Concern over government restriction of the press had shifted significantly to concern over corporate censorship. The marketplace had became a commercial marketplace. In the 1990s the Court continued to witness a number of cases seeking to prohibit government regulation of political campaign spending, commercial broadcasting, and commercial speech. Favorable decisions toward the expanded rights came from an increasingly conservative Supreme Court with support of the political right and business community. People feared that the First Amendment had become a tool for protecting corporate commercial interests rather than the exchange of political ideas.

By the 1990s, distinct changes in public opinion regarding the press' responsibility were being registered in polls. Central to the trend was a distinct lack of trust in the press' fairness through perceived excessive news coverage on some subjects, corporate motives for news ratings and circulation, and respect for personal privacy. The public feared the press role to inform and educate was lost. At the same time, emergence of an interactive media such as talk shows also allowed citizens to participate in the press rather than merely be consumers, led to an even greater exchange of information and opinion. Critical opinions of the government free of censorship or fear of retaliation constituted a major part of exchanges. Others kept vigilance over government intrusions in the press. The American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression in 1998 assessed threats to freedom of the press through three events: publication of a murder-manual book (Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors) which a 1997 court ruling held was outside First Amendment protections; the subpoena of Monica Lewinsky's bookstore purchases by a governmental special investigator; and, indictments against a major national bookstore chain for selling books containing nude photographs of children. Aiding this diversity of free press concerns was the fact that the Court had never developed a comprehensive theory regarding the freedom of press. Though the United States enjoyed the greatest freedoms for the press in the world, serious issues were in need of resolution as the twentieth century drew to a close.

Freedom of the Press - Further Readings [next] [back] Freedom of the Press - The Electronic Age

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