Freedom of the press prevails

Several of my beloved commenters have been insisting the differences between press freedoms in the US and China are minimal, if they even exist. I, too, was extremely critical this week when my government tried to restrict press coverage of the hunt for bodies of Katrina’s victims in New Orleans, and compared the move to the type of thing I’d expect from China.

But in America there are some dramatic differences: namely, the US media can take the government to court and does so all the time. And they can win. To the commenter who insisted yesterday that US news networks are simply corporate arms of the government, I say read this.

Rather than fight a lawsuit by CNN, the federal government abandoned its effort Saturday to prevent the media from reporting on the recovery of the dead in New Orleans.

Joint Task Force Katrina “has no plans to bar, impede or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts,” said Col. Christian E. deGraff, representing the task force.

U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison issued a temporary restraining order Friday against a “zero access” policy announced earlier in the day by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city’s homeland security director.

In explaining the ban, Ebbert said, “we don’t think that’s proper” to let members of the media view the bodies.

The judge was to consider granting a permanent injunction Saturday when the government announced its decision not to fight CNN’s lawsuit.

In an e-mail to CNN staff, CNN News Group President Jim Walton said the network filed the the lawsuit to “prohibit any agency from restricting its ability to fully and fairly cover” the hurricane victim recovery process.

“As seen most recently from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, from tsunami-ravaged South Asia and from Hurricane Katrina’s landfall along the Gulf,” Walton wrote, “CNN has shown that it is capable of balancing vigorous reporting with respect for private concerns.”

Three words that spell the difference between a free people and a police state: Rule of law. Write those words down, bind them between your eyes, tatoo them on your skin, but never forget, until China has rule of law it can make no pretenses of being a free society.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

On the other hand, our press does have its problems. And they tend to be subtler and harder to spot, like the influence that large media corporations have over what their news departments can and cannot cover and the shallowness that results from most news –especially television news– being commercially driven. While I don’t equate this to Chinese-style state control, it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to question and be critical of our media. (And we PR pros have a karmic duty to remind people of this, I think.)

I am reminded of a great quote I read a couple of years ago…I went looking for the article recently and couldn’t find it. A Russian was telling an American journalist (I believe), “I feel so sorry for you Americans. You’ve always had a free press, so you’ve never learned to read between the lines.”

It’s a shame that it takes a disaster like Katrina to remind the American media of their mission. Now, I wonder how long they’ll remember it.

September 10, 2005 @ 9:53 am | Comment

Will, I have huge issues with the US media, and you’re totally right about their corporate leashes. When news companies are parts of huge conglomerates (GE owns NBC, for example) you know they’re under pressure not to dig too deep in certain areas. And about reading between the lines, I can’t agree more. But Americans have never been very good at doing that. All of the information is out there (and a lot of misinformation as well) thanks to our huge and diverse media and enlightened blogs like yours and mine. Unfortunately, most people are too lazy, disinterested or unenlightened to seek out the real story.

September 10, 2005 @ 9:59 am | Comment

I’ve been reading “Disneywar” which is something of a PR man’s nightmare – at least, if you’re Disney’s PR man. It gets just a bit into the restrictions that were placed on ABC’s ability to report on Disney after Disney bought Cap Cities (one of my ex employers, by the way). It’s a pity there’s not more on that.

I really have very little faith in TV these days, which is a shame because, of course, it is a phenomenal medium for telling a visual story when used correctly. I’ve enjoyed…enjoyed is the wrong word…I’ve respected some of the Katrina coverage that I’ve seen. But the TV side of the story is dying now. The interesting stuff will be what percolates out in long-lead print over the next few months, as people really have time to research and consequences become clear.

September 10, 2005 @ 10:05 am | Comment

Hey, Cap Cities was my employer once, too. What a behemoth of a company…

The only TV news I respect is PBS, but even they are beholden to corporate America (so many guests on the News Hour are from corporate-funded thinktanks and organizations). Have you seen the show Now, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers? Like Frontline, it displays no fear of the government or corporate America, and I can only wonder what our world would be like of other media could follow their example.

CNN crossed a major hurdle with Katrina, and I am hoping it will signal a permanent shift. Their reporters have become downright bellicose to obvious liars and obfuscators, and they are actually using words like “lied” and “contradicted himself” when covering slippery officials. Far less of that bullshit that there are two viewpoints, a conservative and a liberal one and you can take your pick. Truth is truth. They actually seem to be getting it.

September 10, 2005 @ 10:18 am | Comment

For all its faults, which are many and include the lack of weight given media concentration and corporate ties, I’d still consider the RSF index of press freedom the best available measure. (At In that index, the US scores a bit better than China…

As for corporate ties – and as M&A continue apace, and the nation-state deliberately hobbles itself, those are going to get more and more important – I don’t think they’re important enough, in the American context, to affect internal press freedom (news from outside are another matter). The US isn’t Venezuela.

September 10, 2005 @ 12:07 pm | Comment

CNN Battles The Government On Storm Body Recovery (GOVERNMENT DROPS LEGAL OPPOSITION)

A reader sent us this tip, pointing us to this story — to the paragraph at the end:

CNN has obtained a restraining order to prevent emergency officials in the Hurrican…

September 10, 2005 @ 3:01 pm | Comment

To all,

In many ways the American media is even better at hiding or distorting the truth. It’s because so much credibility has been lavished on the American press that Americans in general tend to feel secure with their news information. BUT that’s where the problem is. We’re so certain that our media is better than other country’s media at giving correct and undistorted information that we become gullible to the information given to us.

From my personal experience, it’s when I go visit and talk to foreigners from abroad that I get a whole new perspective on world events, which incidentally our American media tend not to give.

September 10, 2005 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

Define “the media” in America, AC. You have the very conservative Wall Street Journal and theliberal Nation, Fox News and PBS. They are not monolithic, as in some other countries, like….well, you know. There are terrible flaws in our media, and often we have a frightened press corps. It’s still one of the best in the world, after Germany and the UK and a few others. And they can actually use the words “democracy” and “Tiananmen Square Massacre” and “Falun Gong” without being closed down.

September 10, 2005 @ 6:40 pm | Comment

I suspect that the ability of major media to keep viewpoints out of general circulation is in its terminal end stages. Podcasts of news stories and opinion pieces will be the next hammer blow to the traditional gatekeeper function of mainstream media. The cost of distributing in this format is so low that a high quality program will be able to get massive audiences as the biased news media, with its fake objectivity, continues to shrink. I don’t mind bias. I’d much rather that it be up front and understood so that you can navigate it and get alternate points of view. The worst bias is the bias that you never spot.

September 10, 2005 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Richard, I think “Abu Ghraib torture,” “imperialism” and “Islam” would be rather more relevant than those. You can bet that, if the US were a fascist dictatorship, “Falun Gong,” “Tiananmen massacre” and “democracy” would get more play than they do now.

Yeah, including “democracy.” Democracy can mean whatever we want, just like peace.

September 11, 2005 @ 8:16 am | Comment


The American media is very biased. There are whole segments of view points not aired. And the most terrible thing is that we Americans tend to think we are “fair and balanced.” WRONG.

September 11, 2005 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

About 40 percent of this blog is dedicated to criticizing the American media. But it’s about the best in the world, all in all. As I said, I musyt porefer the English and German media, but the US does a decent job, and post-Katrina it looks like it is about to get back on track, offering real reporting instead of licking Bush’s whatever. Of course there are aberrations like Fox News, but that is the price you pay for having a free media. Better than monolithic Party-run newspapers and TV networks like in some other countries I know.

September 11, 2005 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

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