The Press Under a Free Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Calvin Coolidge offered his opinions on the role the media should play in the modern United States. He encouraged the press to avoid engaging in propaganda and to be mindful of the motivations of sources. The press, Coolidge said, has a dual purpose–to inform the public of important news and to generate profits as a business. There is no reason to believe that American journalism as a whole would betray the public, he said, but he advised that there would be those who sought to corrupt the press. The concept that would best protect the integrity of the press, he concluded, was the idealism prevalent in every part of American society.

Summary Overview

In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Calvin Coolidge offered his opinions on the role the media should play in the modern United States. He encouraged the press to avoid engaging in propaganda and to be mindful of the motivations of sources. The press, Coolidge said, has a dual purpose–to inform the public of important news and to generate profits as a business. There is no reason to believe that American journalism as a whole would betray the public, he said, but he advised that there would be those who sought to corrupt the press. The concept that would best protect the integrity of the press, he concluded, was the idealism prevalent in every part of American society.

Defining Moment

By the 1920s, America’s collective attention had turned away from the activist ideals of the Progressive Era to what President Warren Harding referred to as a period of “normalcy.” Politically, Americans looked for more conservative initiatives from their leaders, electing the more conservative Republican Warren G. Harding to succeed the liberalism of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The more popular themes of this era included the desire for government to be minimally intrusive–to help Americans who could not help themselves, but to avoid unnecessary regulation and excessive taxation.

At the same time, however, America was continuing to change economically and socially. There were a number of race riots, for example, as well as a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the South. Additionally, while most major industries were seeing great strength, their success was challenged by organized labor, which was attempting to find new, national support by engaging in strikes and other campaigns. With the start of Prohibition in 1920, crime–from violation of the Volstead Act to alcohol smuggling and gangland violence–was on the upswing during this period. Indeed, the 1920s was a period replete with newsworthy developments.

On an international scale, the rise of Bolshevism and Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia was seen as a threat to the American way of life. Americans accused organized labor of demonstrating Communist tendencies (some even believed that Bolsheviks were behind a number of strikes and union organization campaigns). Accused European Communists were also arrested and deported under the auspices of outdated sedition laws. Even the press was accused of having ties to left-leaning activities and, in light of this fact, many news outlets felt compelled to report the news in a manner that would not invite such accusations.

In Washington, President Warren Harding’s death in 1923 brought to office his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge developed a positive reputation in the media for his unprecedented accessibility. Of the seventeen presidents who have held press conferences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Coolidge has held the second-largest number–521–during his tenure. Only three-term president Franklin D. Roosevelt held more, with 1,020. Although he was careful not to insert himself into controversies, Coolidge was one of the most visible presidents of the twentieth century. He was also the first president to use the radio to address the American people.

In light of his apparent willingness to appear before, and even build relationships with, the press, Coolidge was invited to speak before a 1925 conference of newspaper editors in Washington. Coolidge took advantage of this venue to provide his thoughts on the role of the media during this tumultuous period in American history.

Author Biography

Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on July 4, 1872. His father was a storekeeper. Coolidge graduated from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thereafter, he pursued a career in law and government. Coolidge won a seat on the Northampton City Council in 1900 and, from there, became chairman of the Northampton’s local Republican organization in 1904, mayor of Northampton in 1910, Massachusetts senator in 1912, and eventually governor of Massachusetts in 1919. He left that office to serve as Republican president Warren Harding’s vice president. In 1923, Harding died, leaving Coolidge president. In 1924, Coolidge won a full term, holding office until 1929. Coolidge retired to Northampton and died on January 5, 1933.

Document Analysis

Speaking to an audience of newspaper editors, Coolidge highlights the value of the press in a democratic society. According to Coolidge, the media is responsible for providing full, unbiased information about issues of import to the people of the United States. However, he cautions, the press should be mindful not to become agents of propaganda. He states that the editorial nature of the press can capture not only the facts, but the character of a particular issue. Although he believes that the business responsibilities of a given newspaper serve as a check on corruption, Coolidge says that the risks of corruption are still present.

Coolidge begins his speech by addressing the differences between the press in a free, democratic society and the press in an autocratic nation. The latter form of government, he says, could never survive without using the press to disseminate skewed and manipulated information. The press, therefore, becomes an agent of government propaganda, perpetuating the power of the despot. In a democratic republic, however, the press becomes an agent of information itself, not the government. The press, in this setting, is responsible for educating and enlightening the people, giving to the information it disseminates what Coolidge calls “dignity.”

Coolidge continues by encouraging the press to take notice of the difference between information and propaganda. It is not an easy task to combat the latter, he says–there are sources who claim to be “specialists,” for example, but are instead untrustworthy, being driven by self-interest and capable of beguiling even the most careful of reporters. The newspapers stand in the difficult position, he says, of ensuring that the information they print is factual and free of prejudice.

Adding to the challenge of being a newspaperman, Coolidge says, is the fact that the press needs to capture the attention of the reader. Mere facts are often not sufficient to sell papers, he says–there is a need for a story to capture the character, human experience, and the spirit of American idealism. The editorial provides a vehicle for combining idealism with unadulterated information. In this regard, Coolidge says, newspapers elevate their storytelling to the level of art.

The very fact that American newspapers are businesses that rely on sales profits, Coolidge states, makes it unlikely that a mainstream newspaper would deal in overt misinformation and propaganda. The press uses a news story to report on the facts, and its editorial pages to comment on and analyze those facts. The focus of either approach, Coolidge adds, should be on the public interest and not any motivating factors driven by the business entities behind the media.

Because of the positive characteristics Coolidge ascribes to the American press–its relative immunity to propaganda and corruption, its motivation to serve the public interest, and its ability to capture American idealism–he calls America’s newspapers the “best newspapers in the world.” This distinction is important, he adds, as it means that despite the negative and corrupting influences that exist, the American press is more suited to reporting on the ever-changing world than ever before.

Essential Themes

Dubbed “Silent Cal,” Calvin Coolidge was, to many, surprisingly accessible to the press. In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Coolidge is highly complimentary of the American media, particularly in an era when the press was susceptible to the corruptive elements of 1920s society.

He comments on the fact that in other political systems–those ruled by dictators and despots–the media is a tool of the leadership. Such leadership uses the press to provide only the type of information that will keep the people loyal to the government. In the case of the American democratic landscape, he says, the press is a resource of the people. It is willing to seek objective fact, regardless of whether it proves critical of the government.

The American press, Coolidge says, is the best in the world for a number of reasons. First, the press is dedicated to the facts, even if they are contrary to the preferences of the government. Second, the American press is far less susceptible to propaganda than the media in other nations. Third, the American media, through its editorials, is able to capture not only the facts of the news, but the character of the people and society behind that the news as well.

To be sure, Coolidge says, there remains a risk that the media could be corrupted by propagandists. He advises his audience to remain vigilant against false and misleading information. But the free press is a definitively American industry, Coolidge says, focused not on serving the government or private business interests, but on serving its readers and the general public.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. Marblehead: Wiley, 1931. Print.
  • Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1998. Print.
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States of the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
Categories: History Content