For a special summer post, IO is releasing a four part series on the free flow of information doctrine. This is the first in the series.
With little public notice, a foundation-stone of US global power has begun to crumble. The US free flow of information doctrine rose to dominance during World War II. Though repeatedly challenged, it enjoyed international supremacy for eighty years. Now, however, its hold is finally slipping. To clarify this vital change requires historical elaboration.
The US press became an advertiser-based big business only over the course of the 19th century. As this occurred, the nation’s leading newspapers embraced a narrow libertarian reading of the protection they gained from the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated, simply, that Congress should make no law abridging the freedom of the press. If, on one side, this did not preclude government press subsidies then, on the other side, neither did it disallow the possibility that municipalities or states or other communities might impose public responsibilities on the press. Publishers were eager to avail themselves of subsidies, such as massively reduced postal rates for transmission of newspapers through the mails. However, they roundly rejected community responsibilities. Thus, they insisted on an essentially self-serving interpretation: press freedom meant no government interference in their business and editorial affairs – leaving publishers free to pursue their own ownership, political and social class interests.
Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, individual newspapers consolidated into increasingly extensive chains. During the 1930s came other salient industry developments. Newspapers took cross-ownership interests in radio stations. Film studios began to provide regular sound newsreels for screening by the nation’s cinemas. Weekly magazines led by Time, Newsweek, and Life became highly successful news purveyors. Television was being rapidly innovated. All this signified that the working definition of “the press” had come to encompass the media system at large.
By the outbreak of World War II, this multi-media US press – alongside the news agencies that gathered and distributed much of its content – became intent on (additional) global expansion. Trade groups were organized to accomplish this, under the banner of “freedom of information.” With sustained aid from high government officials, they insisted that “the free flow of information” should prevail throughout the postwar world. They held aloft the banner of the US press’s libertarian conception, which still made no room for any greater social responsibility. “Freedom of information” now harbored two overriding objectives.
World War II marked a transformational shift in the global political economy, as the United States dislodged its former capitalist rivals and labored to assert a preponderance of global power against the Soviet Union. Prior to the war, the US press and media industry possessed limited access to the colonial markets controlled by the leading powers and, indeed, to the markets of the leading powers themselves. Three European news agencies – British Reuters, the French Havas, and the German Wolf – had formed a longstanding cartel with which they dominated most of the world news market and attempted to limit inroads being made by the US’s United Press and Associated Press (AP) agencies. US films and recordings enjoyed much greater market access, but they still faced restrictions.