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A Free Press - If You Can Keep It



A Free Press - If You Can Keep It


Transcript of a lecture delivered by Warren Phillips at the University of California, Riverside, in which he argues that legislative restrictions on the press are working in tandem with public apathy to erode First Amendment protections. He admits that the press has imperfectly pursued its mission, but that the relationship is reciprocal: an expanded cooperation between the media and public is crucial to a society that is both free and informed. (Selections - full volume available from Queens College Archives)


Freedom of the press


Phillips, Warren, 1926-




Queens College Department of Special Collections and Archives (New York, N.Y.)




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University of California, Riverside


A free press - if you can keep it

There obviously is more we in the press can do to serve the public better.
We must do much more to improve our standards of reporting and news judgment to prevent our failing in the future, as we often have in the past, to anticipate, to foreshadow some of the major trends in society.
It is distressing to look at our coverage in the 1960s of Northern racial tensions and later of campus unrest; we overlooked the smoldering fuses and moved in on those stories only when the explosion came.
Many papers - not all - failed in 1972 and 1973 to alert their readers to the energy shortage that was in the making even before the oil boycott. More recently, even most of us close to the scene failed to prepare our readers for the financial crisis that has shaken New York City and has had wide ripple effects.
The failure to anticipate such major news developments is one of the most crushing criticisms that deserve to be leveled at the press. But critics have chosen to focus on other alleged weaknesses, many not nearly so valid.
There are other things that we of the press can do to perform more effectively. One is to cultivate an expanded sense of humility, reminding ourselves daily of our own fallibility, encouraging the trend toward public correction of our errors. We can also encourage the trend to open up our pages more to dissenting views. We can be more receptive to criticism.
Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News, has commented that this does not mean abdicating judgment or overlooking that much criticism comes from those with special interests to promote. "But we must remember," he said, "that special interest criticism may just possibly have the germ of validity. After all, a democratic society is an aggregate of different special interests."
We of the press, with your help, also ought to be able to do a better job of education about the functions of a free press. Our business is communication; the lives of many of you in this audience are devoted to education. Yet we have done a totally inadequate job of conveying to the public an understanding of the role delegated to the press by the men who founded our country 200 years ago. I solicit your help in creating a greater awareness that (1) the First Amendment created a free press for the public's protection, not the publishers', and (2) the right of the press to be free was not seen to hinge on the press being perfect or on a governmental finding that the press is responsible. The idea was that with all the shortcomings and even potential for harm that must be acknowledged in a press as free as exists in this country, the greater risk is governmental misconduct - misconduct that only a press that is free is able to expose.
James Madison summed it up this way: "Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided . . . that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits."
Today, men in our government and in the courts, often encouraged by a public that was never taught about the First Amendment's purpose, are trying to substitute new doctrine. It is a doctrine of control and orderliness which the drafters of the Bill of Rights forbid them to aspire to.
My faith is firmly with Mr. Madison and his doctrine. Mr. Franklin, I suspect, would hope the people would feel the same.

Original Format

5.5 x 8.5 inches (140 x 216 mm)


Phillips, Warren, 1926-, “A Free Press - If You Can Keep It,” Queens College Archives and Special Collections, accessed May 25, 2019,