News agencies

American newspapers get much of their news from the same sources which serve about half of the people in the world, that is, the two U.S. news agencies AP (Associated Press) and UPI (United Press International). These two international news agencies are the world's largest. Unlike some others — the French news agency AFP or the Russian TASS, for example — neither is owned, controlled, or operated by the government. AP is the oldest agency internationally (founded in 1848) and the largest. It maintains reporters and cameramen at 122 domestic and 65 foreign news bureaus. It has some 10,000 subscribers — newspapers, radio and television stations and other agencies which pay to receive and use AP news and photographs — in 115 countries. UPI is the second largest, with 92 domestic and 81 foreign bureaus in over 90 countries. It is estimated that altogether, around 2 billion people get most of their news directly or indirectly through AP and UPI. It is also said that one reason why there seems to be so much "American" news internationally is that both agencies have their headquarters in the U.S.

A basic characteristic of the American press is that almost all editors and journalists agree that as much as possible news should be very clearly separated from opinion about the news. Following tradition and journalistic ethics, young newspaper editors and reporters are taught that opinion and political viewpoints belong on the editorial and opinion pages. They are aware that the selection of what news is to be printed can cause a bias, of course. But an attempt must be made to keep the two separate. Therefore, when a news s4ory appears with a reporter's name, it means that the editors consider it to be a mixture of fact and opinion.

There is also a very good economic reason for this policy of separating news and opinion. It was discovered in the late 19th century that greater numbers of readers trusted, and bought, newspapers when the news wasn't slanted in one direction or another. Today, it is often difficult to decide if a paper is republican or democrat, liberal or conservative. Most newspapers, for example, are careful to give equal and balanced news coverage to opposing candidates in elections. They might support one candidate or the other on their editorial pages, but one year this might be a Republican, and the next a Democrat.

AP and UPI owe their international reputation and success to this policy. Only by carefully limiting themselves to the news — who said what and what actually happened how, when, and where — are they trusted and consequently widely used. To protect their reputations for objectivity, both AP and UPI have strict rules. These prevent newspapers from changing the original/AP and UPI news stories too much and still claiming these agencies as their source. In addition to selling news, AP and UPI make available a dozen or so photographs and political cartoons for any major story each day. These give different views and show anything from praise to ridicule. Subscribers are free to choose and print those which suit them best.

Just as there is no official or government-owned news agency in the U.S., there are no official or government-owned newspapers. There is no state censorship, no "official secrets act," nor any law that says, for example, that government records must be kept secret until so many years, have passed. The Freedom of Information Act allows anyone, including newspaper reporters, to get information that elsewhere is simply "not available." Courts and judges cannot stop a story or newspaper from being printed, or published. Someone can go to court later, but then, of course, the story has already appeared.

Government attempts to keep former intelligence agents from publishing secrets they once promised to keep — from "telling it all," as the newspapers say — have been notoriously unsuccessful. One of the best-known recent examples was when The New York Times and The Washington Post published the so-called "Pentagon Papers." These were "secret documents" concerning U.S. military policy during the war in Vietnam. The newspapers won the Supreme Court case that followed. The Court wrote (1971): "The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government."

The tradition of "muckraking" — digging out the dirt and exposing it for all to see — is still extremely strong, and investigative reporting is still a large part of a journalist's work. This is one reason why so many younger Americans are attracted to careers in journalism as a way of effecting change in society. Even small-town newspapers employ reporters who are kept busy searching for examples of political corruption,' business malpractice, or industrial pollution. They are assisted by court decisions which make it harder for "public figures" to sue for libel or slander. Almost anyone who is well known is a public figure, whether they be politicians, judges, policemen, generals, business leaders, sports figures, or TV and movie personalities.

Needless to say, some Americans are not happy with this strong tradition of investigative reporting. They say that it has gone too far, that it gives a false impression of the country, that it makes it almost impossible to keep one's private life private. The press, they say, is not and should not be part of government. The American press responds by quoting their constitutional rights and proudly repeating Thomas Jefferson's noble words: "Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." They perform a public service that is necessary for a healthy democracy, they claim. Less nobly, they also know, of course, that when something which has been hidden behind closed doors is moved to the front pages, it can sell a lot of newspapers.