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In 1947, the Commission on Freedom of the Press chaired by Robert M. Hutchins, published its report entitled "A Free and Responsible Press:" Sharply criticized by the media when published, the Hutchins Commission Report (as it has come to be known) seems to have assumed only minor status within the history of freedom of the press in this century, as well as among reports on social problems generally. In this article, I will consider whether the Hutchins Commission Report deserves a different fate. Given the media's usually astounding self-preoccupation, the fact that the Report was about the "press" would lead one to expect news sources to pay great attention to it. On the other hand, the fact that the Report was highly critical of the press might also explain its largely negative reception and subsequent neglect. If that is true, then the Report's lack of influence may symbolize the power of the press to shape and control the agenda of public debate, and thereby also to shape our collective memory. Ironically, as we shall see, this was one of the Commission's primary criticisms of the press.

We should be interested, of course, not only in how history has treated the Hutchins Commission Report, but also in the quality of its ideas and the validity of its critique of mass media. Perhaps the Report deserves greater attention than it has achieved, and perhaps this volume in particular will serve to highlight and revivify the value of its ideas and recommendations.

A primary theme of this article is that the Report offers us, at the very least, a useful benchmark against which to compare, and thereby to throw into sharper relief, how, if at all, our concerns about the quality of American journalism have changed. In the end, I believe, that inquiry also provides a basis for considering whether one of the Report's prominent and most interesting recommendations – namely, the establishment of a permanent, independent, non-governmental commission on the press – was ill-conceived or wise.

I begin by summarizing the Commission's Report and then turn to offering a contemporary evaluation of its ideas.


Communications Law | Law | Mass Communication