For the 82nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to Stephen Bates about the creation and findings of the Hutchins Commission ahead of the 75th anniversary of the “A Free and Responsible Press” report.
An associate professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Stephen Bates is the author of An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press (Yale University Press). His article “A Free and Responsible University: The Hutchins Commission, the Press, and Academia” appears in the June 2021 issue of Journalism History.
Featured Image: “Commission on Freedom of the Press,” University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00348, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Stephen Bates: They were worried about people not trusting the press anymore. And the danger that people might even reach a point where they don’t trust their own ability to know what’s going on, to understand the truth, in which case they might sort of just back off and watch as democratic institutions were dismantled.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online –
2022 marks the 75-year anniversary of the final report composed by the Commission on Freedom of the Press. The report, titled A Free and Responsible Press, is now recognized by media historians as one of the landmarks of the 20th-century American press. The report was released in 1947 after several years of work by that Commission on Freedom of the Press, often referred to as the Hutchins Commission after its chair, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins.
It identified a clear civic duty of the press, and it called on the news media to act responsibly, recognizing its importance to a well-functioning democracy. In this episode, I talk with Stephen Bates, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas who has done extensive research on the Hutchins Commission and the reception of its findings.
Bates explains how the commission came to be and what it found before exploring the many ways its findings remain extremely –
relevant to journalism even 75 years after they were released. Stephen, welcome to the show. So help us understand a little bit about the origin of this commission, right? Why was this commission commissioned, and when was all of this getting started?
Stephen Bates: Henry Luce was the co-founder and the editor of Time magazine, and he was friends with a Yale classmate of his named Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was president of the University of Chicago. And in the early ‘40s, Luce talked to Hutchins about maybe getting together an organization, a committee to reconsider freedom of the press.
The university at the time was taking corporate money to do scientific research, and Henry Luce said, “Why don’t you take some Time Inc. money to do a philosophical research project?” Hutchins, the first few times, said he didn’t think it was feasible. Finally he said he’d be willing to give it a shot, and in 1943 Luce and Hutchins chose –
the members and began. The first of the meetings was at the end of 1943.
The commission ended up being Hutchins as the chair, and then 12 Americans among whom were some of the leading intellectuals of the day: Reinhold Niebuhr, Archibald MacLeish. Henry Luce came to the first meetings. He was never a member, but he came to some of the meetings and then was told they’d rather not have him there because he was providing the money. Time Inc. ended up providing $200,000, and some of the members thought it might compromise their independence if he were a part of it.
Ken Ward: Sure. Now why, why Hutchins? Is it just because he was a friend with Luce? Did he have any like journalistic background? Why, why is he the one who’s, who’s tapped to lead this commission?
Stephen Bates: I think a couple of reasons. One is he was one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the era at a time when public intellectuals were pretty prominent. They really mattered. He had been on the –
cover of Time magazine of Luce’s time. He had written articles for all sorts of magazines. He was the best-known educator of the time as head of the University of Chicago.
He was a sort of wildly witty and outspoken figure who was quoted in the press about – just about everything. When he was against American involvement in World War II before Pearl Harbor, and he would give speeches that were carried on nationwide radio networks. He was kind of a celebrity in this world. And among the topics that he had discussed was journalism and what he thought were its flaws and shortcomings. So I think those are some of the factors behind it.
Ken Ward: Got you. What, what about those other folks on the commission? Were there journalists among, among those who were tapped to, to help, or sit in one of these seats on the commission?
Stephen Bates: Luce thought it would be better not to have any journalists on the commission, and Hutchins went along with that. They ended –
up getting Archibald MacLeish, who was the librarian of Congress, and he was kind of a journalist. He had been one of the star writers of Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine during its first few years, but they thought there would be a kind of a purity to it if they didn’t have journalists with their conflicts of interest.
The other thing I think that’s important is that the members of the Hutchins Commission thought of journalism as an educational field, as a teaching field, and almost all the members of the commission were professors or former professors themselves, and so they thought it was kind of similar to what they knew about.
Ken Ward: Okay. So, so what, what sorts of questions were they exploring, right, if we have this Commission on Freedom of the Press? Obviously, freedom of the press is going to be important, but how are they interpreting this, and like what are they doing? What sort of work are they actually doing as a part of this commission?
Stephen Bates: From the start, they knew that they were going to go beyond legal freedom, beyond sort of the scope of the First Amendment and talk about responsibility –
and moral obligations as well. They were not terribly well organized. Henry Luce really never had a very clear idea of what he wanted. He kind of liked the idea of coming up with the question and then hiring a bunch of smart people. In this case, smart white men were the only people who were chosen and sending them off to do the work.
It’s a little odd when you think about it to try to get a committee together to answer a philosophical question. That’s a kind of audacious and maybe even a ludicrous idea. And Luce seemed to think maybe they’ll come up with a new statement that will inspire people. Maybe it’ll be something more analytical, maybe it will have global implications. I don’t know if he really knew. Hutchins was distracted and wasn’t really on top of it.
They decided not to do a great deal of research. Hutchins was hostile, antagonistic toward social science –
in general, and content analysis in particular, so he stymied various research proposals that came from one member, Harold Laswell. They did interview journalists and others. Hutchins liked to sort of pretend that it was a quasi-governmental body, so he referred to their deliberations, and he referred to people appearing before them as witnesses, and they had several dozen witnesses including some journalists.
But mostly what they did was sit around a table, in 17 meetings, most of them two or three days long, and talked. They exchanged drafts of things, memos, papers. The commission produced several supplementary books as well as their report, but mostly it was sitting around talking.
And I found, as I looked through this, the deliberations in some ways are more interesting than the report itself — to see these really smart people –
working through some timeless problems. The commission hired a court reporter who transcribed all of the meetings. And the deliberations haven’t been published, but they’re really enlightening. They’re fascinating.
Ken Ward: That’s interesting. So, so give us a taste of what they found. What, what was the outcome of all of this deliberation then? What did the finished product look like? And yeah, did it – did it speak toward the press in terms of journalism, was it more broad than that? You said they were interested in other topics as well, so what did they find?
Stephen Bates: They said they were looking at all different media of nonfiction as well as fiction. They said they were talking about movies. They did talk about radio and not just radio and news. But the report, when it was published in 1947, was really mostly about public affairs, news in print, even though they talked about these other things. Ah, that was its –
principle focus. They didn’t talk a great deal about culture, the media’s impact on culture, apart from the media’s impact on politics.
What they — what they produced was a general report called A Free and Responsible Press that’s around 100 pages long, and then several supplemental volumes, two of them by commission members and then others by staff members.
Ken Ward: And what, what did it contain? What were some of those main findings?
Stephen Bates: Well, in some ways the main findings are — may seem not terribly surprising now. They were kind of surprising and, and important in 1947. And it was important I think just that the group like this would come together and reach these conclusions.
One is that the press is free for the sake of aiding democracy and that it – to do so it needs to provide information and a –
space for people to deliberate and understand. And they thought of, of the press as, as performing a kind of unifying function in the sense that its task is, is not just to inform the community, but also in some important way to form the community.
They talked about free speech as being something bigger than the First Amendment. And the idea was that you can be using your legal First Amendment rights, but abusing free speech in some other sense. If you are, as a journalist, acting irresponsibly, or if you are as a – as an outsider trying to suppress someone else’s speech, trying to boycott, for instance, a newspaper because what it had said doesn’t please you or your organization.
Um, they just – they talked about democracy, diversity, the importance of truth in context as, as important functions of the press. Um, and, and the idea that the press to serve democracy,
needs to defend democracy, needs to be self-conscious about it. One of the members, Harold Laswell, said, “The press can be objective between Republican and Democrat, but not between a democratic system and an authoritarian system. There should be no shame in being biased in that sense.”
And then I guess the two big conclusions they reached were that the free market is not enough. The marketplace is not going to provide the incentives necessary to produce high quality journalism, but at the same time there’s not much of a role for government. That for government to step in with regulations would probably compromise the press’ independence and cause more harm than good.
They left an opening for the government to step in if the press didn’t get better on its own. And they sort of threatened the press. They said that, if the press doesn’t improve on its own, regulation is, is inevitable.
And, and we think in a way it’s too bad, but it’s inevitable. The First Amendment will be no protection. The First Amendment will be amended they said.
So they’re kind of saying, “We’re on your side, press. We want to save your freedom. You have to do better or else you’re going to lose your freedom, and here’s how you can do better.”
Ken Ward: Interesting. Now were, were those new ideas at the time, or were they simply kind of formalizing ideas that were common, and if so, who were they common among, like the public, the intellectuals, the press itself?
Stephen Bates: I think that they – that the public – I’m not sure the public cared a great deal. People liked to think that there was this one area of great – of keen interest to the public, but Time Inc. spent a lot of money on this project, including on getting the word out, getting the report out at the end, and collecting news clippings from around the country.
It got a lot of new coverage and the Time Inc. memo I read said we got almost no letters at all. Like the report itself, the body of it was published in Fortune magazine. Almost nobody wrote in. It seemed that the public didn’t care that much about this.
Intellectuals, I think, hadn’t given the press a lot of thought. There was a bit more press criticism from the social sciences coming out around that time, including Leo Rosten. And there were press critics like George Seldes who’d written about some of these things.
But none of them I think had been as systematic as the Hutchins Commission was, and none of them made the splash of these 13 leading American intellectuals coming up with a statement as they did.
Ken Ward: Did it matter that it was happening at this point? You know, when we think of the ‘40s I think a lot of people will immediately think those early ‘40s and associate it with World War II. Does, does World War II –
or, or anything else in that context of the 1940s lead this commission to, you know, look at things in a certain way, or gravitate toward particular conclusions that maybe had it occurred 10 years earlier, 10 years later they wouldn’t have been as focused on?
Stephen Bates: Well, on the one hand, they didn’t talk much about the war, and I think that was a good instinct on their part that the report was criticized at the time for not having a lot of specifics, but looking back at it this much later, the specifics are the least interesting thing when they talk about what – who, who bought the blue network or something. It’s not that interesting now. What’s interesting are these sort of timeless principles.
What surprised me, especially when I read the deliberations, was the extent to which they were operating under circumstances that are kind of similar to ours. They talked about fearing that democracy was doomed. Some of this
had been in the air during the 1930s during the Depression, but there were still concerns even during the war that people were really angry that especially racists and nativists might flock behind a demagogue. And they talked about how the media might be partly responsible for that.
Reinhold Niebuhr said, “If the press hadn’t turned Charles Lindbergh into such a hero in the 1920s, he wouldn’t have become such a menace around 1940 when he was opposing U.S. involvement in the war. And you can think of that with the star of The Apprentice now, how the media may make a demagogue.
They talked about partisan media leading to polarization and information bubbles. The same kinds of things we see now. William Ernest Hocking, who was a philosopher on the commission, said one of the troubles with a partisan news outlet is that it may make a lot of money, but it becomes a –
prisoner of its own success. And he said, a newspaper that goes purely partisan can’t turn back. It becomes – it becomes obliged to its audience not to depart from the party line. If it does, it’s going to lose audience. And I think we’ve seen that with Fox News losing audience to some of the more strident competitors.
They talked about private censorship, about boycotts, blacklisting what are now being called deplatforming, cancel culture. They worried about anonymous speakers of this sort that people now talk about trolls on social media.
They, they were worried about people not trusting the press anymore, and the danger that people might even reach a point where they don’t trust their own ability to know what’s going on, to understand the truth, in which case they might sort of just back off and watch as democratic institutions were dismantled.
Ken Ward: And what did they recommend? Sorry to interrupt. What did they recommend as a remedy to that situation?
Stephen Bates: Well, what they recommended was try – they were against partisan journalism. They thought that that was a terrible mistake. They wanted a greater diversity of opinion in the press. They wanted more different voices, more different ideas, but they had an idea of objectivity really, and a hope that the press across the country could kind of tell the same story in terms of facts and not be biased one way or another politically, but they did want this diversity of opinion.
They were concerned in talking about the press throughout about unaccountable giant power, economic power, the power to influence people. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the members, said that if corporations have the power to suppress certain ideas and they use it, then democracy is doomed.
So the commission tried to find ways to argue that the corporate media needed to feel a responsibility to the democratic system, and publish ideas that were perhaps not shared by their own publishers and editors.
Ken Ward: So what was the reception to all of this, right? You know, if the commission is saying, “Okay, in our opinion, press, you’ve got to get it together,” right? Like if you have this role in a democracy to, to fulfill, was that call heeded? Um, what, what was the response of the press, both in terms of what they were saying and in terms of their actions to this report?
Stephen Bates: The press, like most of us, probably didn’t love being criticized, and many daily newspapers responded harshly to the report, especially the conservative press like the Chicago Tribune. Some of them were virtually hysterical. The Chicago Tribune’s headline referred to a free press Hitler style –
as though what the commission were recommending was a sort of totalitarianism.
The impact at the time was a lot of bad publicity in the daily press. A fair amount of bad publicity among journalism professors because their report was disrespectful toward them as a part of Robert Maynard Hutchins’s preference for a liberal arts curriculum rather than coursework in skills.
And then some of the members said that within a year or two it seemed to have been forgotten, but it was revived in the late 1950s in Four Theories of the Press, one of the theories being social responsibility, which was based on the Hutchins Commission, and it became part of the journalism school cannon in the years since.
I think it’s, it’s more helpful in clarifying the context, the framework of the press and democracy, even if its
direct impact on the press is a little harder to figure out. In a way it, it helps us understand how to think about the press, and how to think about issues like giant economic power in the press that are – that are as important today as ever.
The press has gotten more like what they would respect and appreciate in some ways, and it is probably the problems are deeper in some other ways.
Ken Ward: And, and you’ve just gotten exactly to one of the main questions I want to make sure that we address before we run out of time, which is, you know, the release of the commission’s report we’ll celebrate a 75th year anniversary in 2022. That’s just around the corner.
What are some of the areas where you see the things the commission was talking about 75, 74 years ago having the most impact on what we’re seeing today in our current press environment?
Stephen Bates: Well, socially, I think there are the issues they touched on,
like information bubbles, the rage of the public. Hocking said that a partisan news outlet makes money by making people angry, by telling them whom to hate.
The deplatforming demagogues sort of post-truth culture that remains with us because of two things: one of which they were familiar with, which is partisan news, and now we have partisan cable news. And then the other would have totally baffled them, which is social media.
Ah, on the one hand it’s, it’s unfiltered. There are no leads. It’s, it’s a common carrier. It really lets everyone express opinions in a way they would have liked, but there’s no filter at all. I think they wanted better filters not the removal of filters. And social media also encouraged sort of unreflective, I think, anger and rage. Hocking talked about how we need a liberty of the garden instead of liberty of the weeds.
But then the –
biggest issue was social media’s just giant unaccountable economic power. Facebook, Twitter, Google are much larger than the Chicago Tribune or Time Inc., the companies that – whose economic power in the 1940s seemed a threat to democracy.
Ken Ward: Well, so you have — you’ve put so much work into understanding this, this commission and its findings in your career, and so I’m really interested to hear your response to this, this last question that we ask all of our guests, which is why journalism history matters.
Stephen Bates: I think the – in a way it matters because the – because the past matters in general. The past is a way of understanding ourselves and how we got here, and journalism history is an important data point in understanding the past.
Journalism itself is, is in part the mirror in which we see and try to understand ourselves, and the Hutchins Commission thought there might be a way to wipe away some of the smudges and help that mirror
provide a little bit better of an image.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Stephen, I want to thank you one more time for being on the show. It’s been fantastic talking with you, and I feel like I understand this report a little bit better, so I thank you for that. Thanks for being on the show.
Stephen Bates: Thanks very much.
Ken Ward: That’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. That’s all one word. Until next time I’m your host Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”