Hutchins Commission

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Robert M. Hutchins



     Financed by grants from Henry R. Luce, founder of Time, Inc., and Encyclopedia Britannica totaling $215,000, the Commission on Freedom of the Press was launched in December 1942. A year later, committee members were chosen by the head of the commission, University of Chicago chancellor, Robert Maynard Hutchins. In its first meeting, the Commission decided to deliberate on all media of mass communication that form the "press":  radio, newspapers, motion pictures, magazines, and books. In 1947, the commission issued a report that dealt with the social responsibilities of the owners and managers of the press.

     The Hutchins Commission set out to answer one question: Was freedom of the press in danger? When the committee realized that the answer to the question was "yes," they concluded that freedom of the press was in danger for three reasons. First, the importance of the press to the people had greatly increased with its development as an instrument of mass communication. Ironically, the proportion of people who were able to express their opinions and ideas through the press had decreased tremendously. Second, the few people who were able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication had not adequately fulfilled the needs of society. [REWORD:  third, those who directed the machinery engaged in practices, condemned by and much to the dismay of society, which inevitably and unfairly allowed them to regulate and control the press.]

     The members of the Hutchins Commission understood that certain requirements for the press must be established in order to provide a free society with the knowledge and information necessary to remain free. The five requirements that the press should meet were:

          - A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning (the media should be accurate; the press should not lie)

          - A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism (units of the press should assume the duty of publishing ideas that may contradict those of their owners and through the media the creators of the contrasting viewpoints can come to understand one another)

          - A means of representing the constituent groups of society (if different groups are exposed to each other, they will gradually build up respect for and understanding of  each other)

          - A method of presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society (stating and clarifying the ideals toward which the community should strive)

          - A way of reaching every member of the society [aUNCLEAR PHRASE by the currents of information, thought, and feeling which the press supplies] (it wasn't assumed that everyone would actually use all the material they receive, but, nonetheless, there is a need for the wide distribution of news and opinion)

     The Commission worked hard at developing what has become known as the social responsibility theory. This theory reflected a dissatisfaction with media, owners and operators and the way they distributed media while also accepting the following principles: the press should service the political system, enlighten the public, safegauard the liberties of the individual, service the economic system, entertain the public (provided that the entertainment is "good"), and maintain its own financial self-sufficiency. The Commission saw the social responsibility theory as being a "safeguard against totalitarianism." The commissioners believed that owners needed to restrain themselves from trying to manipulate and exploit the public for financial gain and political power. At the same time, the public had to hold the press up to more high-minded standards.

     Hutchins' main goal was to make the owners of the press responsible and still maintain freedom of the press. He was once quoted as saying, "Freedom requires responsibility." He also advocated better and more prevalent press criticism.


{You might insert here how the press itself reacted to the report -- not well, as it turned out!]


       Hutchins predicted that it would take nearly a decade for his report to have an impact; it actually took longer. By the 1960's there were critical press reviews, local press councils, academic research, professional seminars, and self-studies by the professional associations. Journalism students around the country learned of the Commission's message of social responsibility through class discussions and assigned readings. Press criticism and analysis became popular in magazines, news weeklies, and some newspapers. Editorial and publisher's viewpoints columns sometimes took up criticism and response in the 1970s and 1980s. The efforts of the Hutchins Commission in the 1940s contributed toward the way professional press criticism is practiced and viewed today.





The Commission on Freedom of the Press. (1947). A Free and Responsible Press. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

This report from the Hutchins Commission deals with the social responsibilities of the owners and managers of the press.


Marzolf, M. T. (1991). Civilizing Voices : American Press Criticism, 1880-1950. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing Group.
This book outlines the history of criticism of the modern American press between the years 1880 and 1950. The book explains some enduring and some changing themes of press criticism.
Siebert, F. S., Peterson, T., & Schramm, W. (1956). Four Theories of the Press. Chicago: The University of Illinois Press.
This book describes the four major theories that the world's press follow: the authoritarian theory, the libertarian theory, the social responsibility theory, and the Soviet communist theory. The analysis of these theories summarize the conflict among major approaches to public communication.


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