Media: How are they regulated?

Seal of the Federal Communications Commission

(Credit: Federal Communications Commission at

Learning Objectives

  • Identify circumstances in which the freedom of the press is not absolute.
  • Compare the ways in which the government oversees and influences media programming.

Media and the First Amendment

The U.S. Constitution was written in secrecy. Journalists were neither invited to watch the drafting, nor did the framers talk to the press about their disagreements and decisions. Once it was finished, however, the Constitution was released to the public and almost all newspapers printed it. Newspaper editors also published commentary and opinion about the new document and the form of government it proposed. The eventual printing of The Federalist Papers, and the lesser-known Anti-Federalist Papers, fueled the argument that the press was vital to American democracy. It was also clear the press had the ability to affect public opinion and therefore public policy.[1]

First Amendment

The approval of the First Amendment, as a part of the Bill of Rights, demonstrated the framers’ belief that a free and vital press was important enough to protect. It said:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This amendment serves as the basis for the political freedoms of the United States, and freedom of the press plays a strong role in keeping democracy healthy. Without it, the press would not be free to alert citizens to government abuses and corruption.

An illustration of several men in a courtroom. One man is standing with his hand outstretched, facing the judge.

In defending John Peter Zenger against charges of libel against colonial governor William Cosby, Andrew Hamilton argued that a statement is not libelous if it can be proved. (Credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

The media act as informants and messengers, providing the means for citizens to become informed and serving as a venue for citizens to announce plans to assemble and protest actions by their government. Like the other First Amendment liberties, freedom of the press is not absolute. The media have limitations on their freedom to publish and broadcast.

Defamation of Character: Private Citizens Versus Public Figures

Freedom of speech and press by the media can conflict with a citizen’s right not to be subject to false statements in the media that would defame a person’s character. That is, the media do not have a general right under the principle of protected free press or speech to commit slander (to speak false information with an intent to harm a person) or libel (the printing of false information with intent to harm a person or entity).[2] Yet, on a weekly basis, newspapers print stories that are negative and harmful of public figures. They do this and yet they are not often sued.

The key reason for a lack of litigation is that the average citizen must be treated differently by the media than individuals who are public figures or government officials.  The government has different standards depending on whether the individual is a private or public figure.[3]

Libel and slander occur only in cases where false information is presented as fact. When editors or columnists write opinions, they are protected from many of the libel and slander provisions because they are not claiming their statements are facts. Second, it is up to the defamed individual or company to bring a lawsuit against the media outlet, and the courts have different standards depending on whether the claimant is a private or public figure. A public figure must show that the publisher or broadcaster acted in “reckless disregard” when submitting information as truth or that the author’s intent was malicious. This test goes back to the New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) case, in which a police commissioner in Alabama sued over inaccurate statements in a newspaper advertisement.[4] Because the commissioner was a public figure, the U.S. Supreme Court applied a stringent test of malice to determine whether the advertisement was libel; the court deemed it was not.

A private individual must make one of the above arguments or argue that the author was negligent in not making sure the information was accurate before publishing it. For this reason, newspapers and magazines are less likely to stray from hard facts when covering private individuals, yet they can be willing to stretch the facts when writing about politicians, celebrities, or public figures. But even stretching the truth can be costly for a publisher.

Classified Material

The media have only a limited right to publish material the government says is classified. If a newspaper or media outlet obtains classified material, or if a journalist is witness to information that is classified, the government may request certain material be redacted or removed from the article.

The line between the people’s right to know and national security is not always clear. In 1971, the Supreme Court heard the Pentagon Papers case, in which the U.S. government sued the New York Times and the Washington Post to stop the release of information from a classified study of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that while the government can impose prior restraint on the media, meaning the government can prevent the publication of information, that right is very limited. The court gave the newspapers the right to publish much of the study, but revelation of troop movements and the names of undercover operatives are some of the few approved reasons for which the government can stop publication or reporting.

The military exercised its right to maintain secrecy over troop movements, stating that Rivera’s reporting had given away troop locations and compromised the safety of the unit. Rivera’s future transmissions and reporting were censored until he was away from the unit.

Media and FCC Regulations

The liberties enjoyed by newspapers are overseen by the U.S. court system, while television and radio broadcasters are monitored by both the courts and a government regulatory commission.

The Communications Act of 1934 created a powerful entity to monitor the airwaves—a seven-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee both radio and telephone communication. The FCC, which now has only five members, requires radio stations to apply for licenses, granted only if stations follow rules about political advertising, providing a public forum for discussion, and serving local and minority communities. With the advent of television, the FCC was given the same authority to license and monitor television stations. The FCC now also enforces ownership limits to avoid monopolies and censors materials deemed inappropriate. It has no jurisdiction over print media, mainly because print media are purchased and not broadcast.

link to learningConcerned about something you heard or viewed? Would you like to file a complaint about an obscene radio program or place your phone number on the Do Not Call list? The FCC oversees each of these.


To maintain a license, stations are required to meet a number of criteria. The equal-time rule, for instance, states that registered candidates running for office must be given equal opportunities for airtime and advertisements at non-cable television and radio stations beginning forty-five days before a primary election and sixty days before a general election. Should WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, agree to sell Senator Marco Rubio thirty seconds of airtime for a presidential campaign commercial, the station must also sell all other candidates in that race thirty seconds of airtime at the same price. This rate cannot be more than the station charges favored commercial advertisers that run ads of the same class and during the same time period.[5]

More importantly, should Fox5 in Atlanta give Bernie Sanders five minutes of free airtime for an infomercial, the station must honor requests from all other candidates in the race for five minutes of free equal air time or a complaint may be filed with the FCC.[6]

In 2015, Donald Trump, when he was a candidate running for the presidential Republican nomination, appeared on Saturday Night Live. Other Republican candidates made equal time requests, and NBC agreed to give each candidate twelve minutes and five seconds of air time on a Friday and Saturday night, as well as during a later episode of Saturday Night Live.[7]

The FCC does waive the equal-time rule if the coverage is purely news. If a newscaster is covering a political rally and is able to secure a short interview with a candidate, equal time does not apply. Likewise, if a news programs creates a short documentary on the problem of immigration reform and chooses to include clips from only one or two candidates, the rule does not apply.[8]

But the rule may include shows that are not news. For this reason, some stations will not show a movie or television program if a candidate appears in it. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gary Coleman, both actors, became candidates in California’s gubernatorial recall election. Television stations did not run Coleman’s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes or Schwarzenegger’s movies, because they would have been subject to the equal time provision. With 135 candidates on the official ballot, stations would have been hard-pressed to offer thirty-minute and two-hour time slots to all.[9]

Even the broadcasting of the president’s State of the Union speech can trigger the equal-time provisions. Opposing parties in Congress now use their time immediately following the State of the Union to offer an official rebuttal to the president’s proposals.[10]

The now abandoned fairness doctrine was instituted in 1949 and required licensed stations to cover controversial issues in a balanced manner by providing listeners with information about all perspectives on any controversial issue. If one candidate, cause, or supporter was given an opportunity to reach the viewers or listeners, the other side was to be given a chance to present its side as well. The fairness doctrine ended in the 1980s, after a succession of court cases led to its repeal by the FCC in 1987, with stations and critics arguing the doctrine limited debate of controversial topics and placed the government in the role of editor.[11]

The FCC also maintains indecency regulations over television, radio, and other broadcasters, which limit indecent material and keep the public airwaves free of obscene material.[12]

The Supreme Court determined that the presence of children in the audience trumped the right of broadcasters to air obscene and profane programming. However, broadcasters can show indecent programming or air profane language between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.[13]

The Supreme Court has also affirmed that the FCC has the authority to regulate content. In 2004, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl’s half-time show cost the CBS network $550,000.

While some FCC violations are witnessed directly by commission members, like Jackson’s exposure at the Super Bowl, the FCC mainly relies on citizens and consumers to file complaints about violations of equal time and indecency rules.

Yet what constitutes a violation is not always clear for citizens wishing to complain, nor is it clear what will lead to a fine or license revocation. In October 2014, parent advocacy groups and consumers filed complaints and called for the FCC to fine ABC for running a sexually charged opening scene in the drama Scandal immediately after It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—without an ad or the cartoon’s credits to act as a buffer between the very different types of programming.[14] The FCC did not fine ABC.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought significant changes to the radio and television industries. It dropped the limit on the number of radio stations (forty) and television stations (twelve) a single company could own. It also allowed networks to purchase large numbers of cable stations. In essence, it reduced competition and increased the number of conglomerates. Some critics, such as Common Cause, argue that the act also raised cable prices and made it easier for companies to neglect their public interest obligations.[15] The act also changed the role of the FCC from regulator to monitor. The Commission oversees the purchase of stations to avoid media monopolies and adjudicates consumer complaints against radio, television, and telephone companies.

Media and Transparency

The press has had some assistance in performing its muckraking duty. Laws that mandate federal and many state government proceedings and meeting documents be made available to the public are called sunshine laws. Proponents believe that open disagreements allow democracy to flourish and darkness allows corruption to occur. Opponents argue that some documents and policies are sensitive, and that the sunshine laws can inhibit policymaking.

While some documents may be classified due to national or state security, governments are encouraged to limit the over-classification of documents. The primary legal example for sunshine laws is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act requires the executive branch of the U.S. government to provide information requested by citizens and was intended to increase openness in the executive branch, which had been criticized for hiding information. Citizens wishing to obtain information may request documents from the appropriate agencies, and agencies may charge fees if the collection and copying of the requested documentation requires time and labor.[16]

FOIA also identifies data that does not need to be disclosed, such as human resource and medical records, national defense records, and material provided by confidential sources, to name a few.[17] Not all presidents have embraced this openness, however. President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, exempted the CIA and FBI from FOIA requests.[18]

Information requests have increased significantly in recent years, with U.S. agencies receiving over 700,000 requests in 2014, many directed to the Departments of State and Defense, thus creating a backlog.[19]

link to learningWant to request a government document but unsure where to start? If the agency is a part of the U.S. government, the Freedom of Information Act portal will help you out.


Few people file requests for information because most assume the media will find and report on important problems. And many people, including the press, assume the government, including the White House, sufficiently answers questions and provide information about government actions and policies. This expectation is not new.

The line between journalists’ expectation of openness and the government’s willingness to be open has continued to be a point of contention. Some administrations use the media to increase public support during times of war, as Woodrow Wilson did in World War I. Other presidents limit the media in order to limit dissent. In 1990, during the first Persian Gulf War, journalists received all publication material from the military in a prepackaged and staged manner. Access to Dover, the air force base that receives coffins of U.S. soldiers who die overseas, was closed. Journalists accused George H. W. Bush’s administration of limiting access and forcing them to produce bad pieces. The White House believed it controlled the message.[20] The ban was later lifted.

In his 2008 presidential run, Barack Obama promised to run a transparent White House.[21] Yet once in office, he found that transparency makes it difficult to get work done, and so he limited access and questions. In his first year in office, George W. Bush, who was criticized by Obama as having a closed government, gave 147 question-and-answer sessions with journalists, while Obama gave only 46. Even Helen Thomas, a long-time liberal White House press correspondent, said the Obama administration tried to control both information and journalists.[22]

An image of Barack Obama and Helen Thomas seated. Obama holds a plate of cake.

President Barack Obama and White House correspondent Helen Thomas set aside their differences over transparency to enjoy cupcakes in honor of their shared birthday on August 4, 2009. (Credit: OpenStax included image)

Because White House limitations on the press are not unusual, many journalists rely on confidential sources. In 1972, under the cloak of anonymity, the associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mark Felt, became a news source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, political reporters at the Washington Post. Felt provided information about a number of potential stories and was Woodward’s main source for information about President Richard Nixon’s involvement in a series of illegal activities, including the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. The information eventually led to Nixon’s resignation and the indictment of sixty-nine people in his administration. Felt was nicknamed “Deep Throat,” and the journalists kept his identity secret until 2005.[23]

The practice of granting anonymity to sources is sometimes referred to as reporter’s privilege. Fueled by the First Amendment’s protection of the press, journalists have long offered to keep sources confidential to protect them from government prosecution. Reporter’s privilege has increased the number of instances in which whistleblowers and government employees have given journalists tips or documents to prompt investigation into questionable government practices. Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak to the press regarding the U.S. government’s massive internal surveillance and tapping program was one such case. In 1972, however, the Supreme Court determined that journalists are not exempt from subpoenas and that courts could force testimony to name a confidential source. Journalists who conceal a source and thereby protect him or her from being properly tried for a crime may spend time in jail for contempt of court. In the case of Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), three journalists were placed in contempt of court for refusing to divulge sources.[24] The journalists appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 5–4 decision, the justices determined that freedom of the press did not extend to the confidentiality of sources. A concurring opinion did state that the case should be seen as a limited ruling, however. If the government needed to know a source due to a criminal trial, it could pursue the name of that source.[25]

More recently, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from New York Times journalist James Risen, who was subpoenaed and ordered to name a confidential source that had provided details about a U.S. government mission designed to harm Iran’s nuclear arms program. Risen was finally released from the subpoena, but the battle took seven years.[26] Overall, the transparency of the government is affected more by the executive currently holding office than by the First Amendment.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is it a potential problem that the equal-time rule does not apply to candidates’ supporters?

  2. Under what circumstances might a journalist be compelled to give up a source?

Terms to Remember

equal-time rule–an FCC policy that all candidates running for office must be given the same radio and television airtime opportunities

fairness doctrine–a 1949 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, now defunct, that required holders of broadcast licenses to cover controversial issues in a balanced manner

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)–a federal statute that requires public agencies to provide certain types of information requested by citizens

indecency regulations–laws that limit indecent and obscene material on public airwaves

libel–printed information about a person or organization that is not true and harms the reputation of the person or organization

prior restraint–a government action that stops someone from doing something before they are able to do it (e.g., forbidding someone to publish a book he or she plans to release)

reporter’s privilege–the right of a journalist to keep a source confidential

slander–spoken information about a person or organization that is not true and harms the reputation of the person or organization

sunshine laws–laws that require government documents and proceedings to be made public

  1. Fellow. American Media History.
  2. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  3. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  4. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
  5. "Statutes and Rules on Candidate Appearances & Advertising," Section 73.1942 [47 CFR §73.1942] Candidate rates. (November 21, 2015).
  6. "Statutes and Rules," Section 73.1941 [47 CFR §73.1941] Equal Opportunities.
  7. Eric Deggans, "It’s Not Hosting SNL, But NBC Will Give ‘Equal Time’ To 4 GOP Candidates," National Public Radio, 24 November 2015.
  8. "47 U.S. Code § 315 - Candidates for public office," Legal Information Institute,
  9. Joel Roberts, "Arnold’s Movies Face TV Blackout," CBS News, 13 August 2003; Gary Susman, "Arnold’s Movies Go off the Air until Election," Entertainment Weekly, 13 August 2003.
  10. David Schultz and John R. Vile. 2015. The Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties in America.
  11. Syracuse Peace Council vs. FCC, 867 F.2d 654 (1989); Katy Steinmetz, "The Death of the Fairness Doctrine," Time, 23 August 2011.
  12. "Obscenity, Indecency, and Profanity," FCC, (September 10, 2015).
  13. "Consumer Help Center: Obscene, Indecent, and Profane Broadcasts," FCC, (September 10, 2015).
  14. Jason Molinet, "TV Watchdog Slams ABC for Sex-filled ‘Scandal’ Opening Immediately After ‘Charlie Brown’ Special," Daily News, 4 November 2104.
  15. "The Fallout from the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Unintended Consequences and Lessons Learned," Common Cause, 9 May 2005; Mark Baumgartner, "Average Cable Rates on the Rise," ABC News, February 15,
  16. "The Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C.", The United States Department of Justice, (September 7, 2015).
  17. Ibid.
  18. Fellow. American Media History.
  19. "What is FOIA?" The Department of Justice, (September 8, 2015).
  20. Ibid.
  21. Christopher Beam, "The TMI President," Slate, 12 November 2008.
  22. Fellow. American Media History, 388.
  23. Bob Woodward, "How Mark Felt Became ‘Deep Throat,’" The Washington Post, 20 June 2005.
  24. Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).
  25. Adam Liptak, "A Justice’s Scribbles on Journalists Rights," New York Times, 7 October 2007.
  26. Matt Apuzzo, "Times Reporter Will Not Be Called to Testify in Leak," New York Times, 12 January 2015.