Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Hutchins Commission: An Historical Perspective


By Edward C. Pease

[Excerpted from Pease, E.C., STILL THE INVISIBLE PEOPLE: Job Satisfaction of Minority Journalists at U.S. Daily Newspapers (Athens, Ohio: E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, 1991)]

In a society based on individual rights and participation, democracy may be defined as a process of dialogue among all constituent groups. The philosophy on which this nation was founded holds as central to its basic democratic structure the importance of the individual vis a vis society. This includes a presumption of the individual’s power of rational thought and concepts of individual natural rights – including religion, speech and press.[1] These concepts were the prevailing notions of Locke, Milton, Mill, Paine and other 17th- and 18th-century thinkers whose writings combined eventually into marketplace-of-ideas theory, from which the First Amendment developed.

Central to the theory is the entirely free and unfettered exchange of ideas, including a free press operating within a social system in which all opinions had equal chance to be heard, the assumption being that truth would emerge from a robust and wide-open debate on issues of public importance. As Milton put it in his Areopagitica, “Let Her and Falsehood grapple; who ever heard of Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”[2] From Milton’s perspective, and that of other libertarians, it was preferable to permit false opinion in the marketplace of ideas than to limit open exchange of ideas, any one of which might contain or lead to truth; free discussion was a self-righting process from which truth eventually would emerge. As social philosopher Carl Becker explained it:

The democratic doctrine of freedom of speech and of the press ... rests upon certain assumptions. One of these is that men desire to know the truth and will be disposed to be guided by it. Another is that the sole method of arriving at the truth in the long run is by the free competition of opinion in the open market. Another is that, since men will invariably differ in their opinions, each man must be permitted to urge, freely and even strenuously, his own opinion, provided he accords others the same right. And the final assumption is that from this mutual toleration and comparison of diverse opinions the one that seems the most rational will emerge and be generally accepted.[3]

Drawing on the work of his father, James Mill, and that of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill’s brand of 17th-century libertarianism was pragmatic and utilitarian: To achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in society, he said, society must insure that all its members have the right to think and act for themselves. Limiting expression, Mill suggested, would limit society members’ ability to think for themselves. Mill made a four-part argument: First, suppressing opinions – however disagreeable they might be to others – might result in suppressing the truth, he said. Second, even an erroneous opinion might contain a kernel of truth, leading to the larger truth. Third, even if the generally held opinion is truth, the public may cling to it irrationally, solely because of rote and tradition, unless forced to defend it. Finally, Mill said, unless the commonly held opinion is challenged occasionally and those holding it are forced to reaffirm it, even truth loses its strength and positive effects on individuals and society.[4]

As Mill wrote in his essay, On Liberty:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. ... If the opinion is right, [people] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.[5]

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, pure libertarianism was on the wane as newspapers and other media grew in size and influence, and the concept of the wide-open debate among individuals was supplanted by the reality of mass communication driven by technological advances. Public resentment of the size, scope, influence and excesses of the press gave rise to efforts to legislate limits on them; the media’s occasionally irresponsible exercise of their First Amendment freedom thus threatened all rights of individual free expression. Media scholar Theodore Peterson argues in his seminal Four Theories of the Press that, just as libertarian theory was founded on the principle of a “negative freedom” – that is, freedom from external restraint – new thinking in the 20th century saw a need for a press both free from restraints but also responsible to larger society.[6] What became known after publication of the Hutchins Commission report as social responsibility theory rests equally on a negative freedom from restraints, as well as on a positive freedom of the press to be proactive – freedom for social good, freedom to help society attain its goals.[7] J. Edward Gerald agreed: “Mass communications media are social institutions, the product of social demand,” which include predictable expectations of performance.[8]

The new social responsibility perspective of the press added to libertarianism the concept of the public’s right to know, at the same time placing moral responsibilities on publishers, who themselves had begun to link responsibility to overall public good with their constitutionally mandated freedom. Because liberty carries with it obligations, the greater freedom accorded the press in a democratic system carries with it responsibilities to fulfill certain functions in society.[9]

Leading newspaper publishers already had come to similar conclusions on their own regarding the role of the press in the new, industrial age. Joseph Pulitzer, legendary publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told his staff in 1907 that his paper should be

an institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice and corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.[10]

In the inaugural issue of his Detroit Evening News in 1873, James Scripps enunciated a similar vision of the role of the crusading press that was reminiscent of Milton:

Nineteenth Century Americans need not have their opinions molded for them by the newspaper press. Give the public the facts and arguments on both sides, and they will quickly determine the right or wrong in each case as it occurs. The vox populi, in the long run, will pretty certainly be found to be the vox Dei.[11]

His younger brother, E.W. Scripps, in his first issue of the Cleveland Penny Press in 1878, addressed these same issues of independence from special interest pressures and voiced libertarian confidence in the rational abilities of the reading public. He wrote: “The newspapers should simply present all the facts the editor is capable of obtaining, concerning men and measures before the bar of the public, and then, after having discharged its duty as a witness, be satisfied to leave the jury in the case – the public –to find the verdict.”[12]

Adolph S. Ochs, upon assuming control of The New York Times in 1860, had a similar vision for his paper: “. . . to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interest involved; to make the columns of the New York Times a forum for the consideration of all public questions of importance and, to that end, to invite intelligent discussion for all shades of opinion.”[13]

But despite the sensibilities of publishers such as Pulitzer, Scripps and Ochs, as the press grew in size and influence, it came under increasing criticism. By 1900, the criticisms had fallen into seven basic themes:

1) The press and its press barons had wielded power to their own ends, at the expense of opposing views and discussion.

2) The press had become subservient to big business and advertisers.

3) The press resisted social change.

4) The press stressed the superficial and sensational over the significant.

5) Press content endangered public morals.

6) The press invaded individuals’ privacy.

7) And the press was controlled by a single socioeconomic class, further endangering any chance for robust and wide-open debate in the free and open marketplaces of ideas.[14]

Following World War II, the American public was frightened by the images of thought manipulation through mass communication, brought on by the Nazi propaganda machine. Those fears, coupled with the growth of the mass communications industry and the social and technological changes that followed the industrial revolution, led Henry R. Luce, founder and publisher of Time, to commission a group of scholars in 1947 to examine the prospects for a free press in America.

The Hutchins Commission

Echoing Mill, the chairman of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, described concerns about the role of the mass media in the 20th century this way: “The tremendous influence of the modern press makes it imperative that the great agencies of mass communication show hospitality to ideas which their owners do not share. Otherwise, these ideas will not have a fair chance.”[15]

The commission said freedom of the press in 1946 was in danger for three reasons. First, the press’s importance to society had increased with its capacity to communicate to mass audiences; at the same time, however, the proportion of people able to communicate their opinions and ideas through the press had decreased. Second, those with access to the press “have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society,” the commission said. Third, press performance had so outraged some segments of society in the 1940s that threats of regulation had surfaced.[16] The commission said:

When an instrument of prime importance to all the people is available to a small minority of the people only, and when it is employed by that small minority in such a way as not to supply the people with the service they require, the freedom of the minority in employment of that instrument is in danger.[17]

More precisely, Gerald wrote, as the press evolved into big business, its priorities also shifted, from dissemination of diverse ideas to bottom-line economic issues. The Hutchins Commission concluded that such emphasis on profits threatened the media’s likelihood of providing “the variety of information and debate that the people need for self-government,” he said. Further, he said,

[i]n such media, entertainment takes precedence over matters of importance to social understanding and self-government. The urgencies of conciliation between nations and between racial and religious groups at home are minimized or overlooked by media with such a distributive goal. Salestalk through advertising and propaganda in the news constitutes a hazard to clear description and understanding of human problems.[18]

Press barons for years had recognized that shift themselves. E.W. Scripps, for instance, who never was shy about making a buck, wrote a year before his death in 1926:

There was a time in this country when newspapers were run for the purpose of moulding public opinion and their owners were deemed lucky if they gained an incidental profit. Now newspapers are run for profit and only incidentally are moulders of public opinion, leaders of the people in politics, and teachers.[19]

The Hutchins Commission considered free expression the central freedom of American democracy, but feared that a press seen by public and government as both unfettered and irresponsible risked losing its First Amendment franchise. To preserve its freedom, the report concluded, the press must serve the society that has accorded it that freedom. “The freedom of the press can remain a right of those who publish only if it incorporates into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest,” the commission wrote.[20] After four years of hearings, the Hutchins Commission released a five-point guideline for press performance that represented a new view of the relationship between the mass media and society. The American press should provide

1) a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning;

2) a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism;

3) a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society;

4) presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society; and

5) full access to the day’s intelligence.[21]

Consistent with the thinking of some newspaper leaders, as indicated by the statements of Ochs, Scripps and Pulitzer, the recommendations outlining changes in the way journalists should look at their jobs and at the media’s role in society. The five points also provide the first of two frameworks here for evaluating press practices and performance.

The Hutchins Commission Charge to the Press

The Hutchins Commission’s guidelines were, on the one hand, direct, straight-forward and commonsensical. At the same time, they enunciated a press function from which the media had sometimes strayed: “The first requirement is that the media should be truthful. They should not lie,” the commission report said.[22] The commission also cautioned the press to separate fact from opinion, while acknowledging that that requirement cannot be absolute: “There is no fact without context and no factual report which is uncolored by the opinions of the reporter.”[23]

The second recommendation, that the press provide “a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism,” underscored the commission’s view of the media’s responsibility as “common carriers of public discussion.”[24] These public discussions should include even – perhaps especially – ideas with which the media owners might not agree. “Their control over the various ways of reaching the ear of America is such that, of they do not publish ideas which differ from their own, those ideas will never reach the ear of America,” the report said.[25]

The third recommendation, particularly relevant to the issue of minorities and the media, underlined the media’s responsibility to present “a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.”[26] “People make decisions in large part in terms of favorable or unfavorable images,” the report said. “They relate fact and opinion to stereotypes. [The media] are principal agents in creating and perpetuating these conventional conceptions. When the images they portray fail to present the social group truly, they tend to pervert judgment.”[27] Such representations of all segments of the American society was seen as a means toward greater understanding and harmony: “The Commission holds to the faith that if people are exposed to the inner truth of the life of a particular group, they will gradually build up respect for and understanding of it.”[28]

The fourth press function, as the Hutchins Commission saw it, was one of education, “the presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.”[29] The press had both an opportunity and a responsibility to help maintain community standards and preserve the society’s values. Finally, the commission said, the press must provide the public with “full access to the day’s intelligence,” something with which no journalist would disagree. “We do not assume that all citizens at all times will actually use all the material they receive. ... But [that] does not alter the need for wide distribution of news and opinion,” the report said. The press must provide the public with enough complete and truthful information that citizens can, “by the exercise of reason and of conscience,” make the decisions necessary to maintain an orderly society, the commission concluded.[30]

After 1947, the press reassessed its role and responsibilities, increasingly operating from the Hutchins Commission’s vision of a two-way relationship between the press and society, encompassing both the rights of free expression ascribed to Milton and marketplace-of-ideas theory, as well as a new expectation of the media’s responsibility to the social system that had accorded such rights. In one way, however, little had changed, the commission report said: “We need a market place for the exchange of comment and criticism regarding public affairs. We need to reproduce on a gigantic scale the open argument which characterized the village gathering two centuries ago.”[31]

In the Hutchins Commission’s view, press freedom was balanced by the press’s responsibility as a public servant. “We suggest that the press look upon itself as performing a public service of a professional kind. ... that the press must take on the community’s objectives as its own objectives.” [emphasis original][32]

It was with this image of the media-as-public servant that America entered the 1960s and their growing clamor for racial equity. In very many ways, the events of that decade represented the first test of the Hutchins Commission vision of press performance. It was a test the media failed.

Note: The rest of this essay applies these historical perspectives on free expression and the Hutchins Commission’s “social responsibility theory” to press performance in the context of race following America’s race upheavals of the mid-1960s. The full essay can be found here.

• • • • •
1. Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson & Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the Press. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1956).
2. John Milton, Aeropagitica, 1644.
3. Carl L. Becker, Progress and Power. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), p. 33, as cited in Siebert, op. cit., p. 44.
4. Siebert, op. cit., p. 46.
5. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, edited by Alburey Castell (New York: F.S. Crofts and Co., 1947), p. 16.
6. Theodore Peterson, Four Theories of the Press, op. cit., p. 93-4.
7. Ibid.
8. J. Edward Gerald, The Social Responsibility of the Press. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963), p. 7.
9. Peterson, op. cit., p. 74.
10. Joseph Pulitzer, message to his staff, April 10, 1907, cited in Edward L. Bernays, Public Relations Problems of the American Press. (New York: National Newspaper Promotion Association, 1952).
11. James Scripps, Detroit Evening News, Aug. 23, 1873. Cited in draft of Vance Trimble, The Astonishing Mr. Scripps. (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press), in press.
12. E.W. Scripps, The Cleveland Penny Press, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 2, 1878, p. 1.
13. Adolph S. Ochs, The New York Times, August 18, 1896, cited in Bernays, op. cit.
14. See Peterson, op. cit., p. 78.
15. Robert M. Hutchins, Foreword, in The Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines and Books. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. viii.
16. Ibid., p. 1.
17. Ibid., pp.1-2.
18. Gerald, op. cit., p. 104.
19. E.W. Scripps, “The Wisdom of an Old Penman,” June 1, 1925, p. 6. (The Scripps Archive, Alden Library, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio)
20. A Free and Responsible Press, op. cit., p. 18.
21. Ibid., pp. 20-29.
22. Ibid., p. 21.
23. Ibid., p. 22.
24. Ibid., p. 23.
25. Ibid., p. 24.
26. Ibid., p. 26.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
29. Ibid., p. 27.
30. Ibid., p. 29. Peterson suggests that this recommendation assisted in the evolution of the principle of freedom of information and the public’s right to know; if the press has a mandate to provide the fullest possible access to the day’s intelligence, it must also possess a right of access to such information. It is the logical underpinning of press demands for free flow of information from the public sector. See Peterson, op. cit., p. 91.
31. A Free and Responsible Press, op. cit., pp. 67-68.
32. Ibid., pp. 92, 126.


  1. I really like with the quote about the freedom of the press coinciding with the right of the citizen and the public interest. I think it explains an ideal relationship between the press and the public.
    Kelsey Devaney

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