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Relationship Between US Government and Press is Rocky

This week marks the 215th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, which grants specific political privileges to American citizens. One important section of the Bill of Rights, known as the First Amendment, protects the freedom of the press. It's often a source of tension between the press and those it reports on -- especially governmental bodies. Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the uneasy relationship between the news media and the U.S. government.

The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The document was ratified on December 15th, 1791 and it contained guarantees of rights and liberties left out of the Constitution. The first amendment states -- among other things -- that "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Analysts say in a democracy, and more specifically in the United States, the role of the press is two-fold: to inform the public and, more importantly, to act as a watchdog on government activities.

Ben Bradlee, former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post newspaper, says the relationship between the government and the press is adversarial, if not confrontational. "You will never get a reporter to say that the relationships with the government are good. Because if he did, he would probably be lying and the government would be treating him too well. They don't have to treat us all that well. They just have to stay out of the way."

But the government does not always, as Bradlee says, stay out of the way of the press. Sometimes it takes the news media to court to stop publication of material it believes to be sensitive and threatening national security.

In mid-June 1971, the New York Times, followed by other newspapers such as the Washington Post, began publishing what became known as "The Pentagon Papers" -- the Defense Department's top-secret history of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Nixon administration, citing national security concerns, obtained a federal court order stopping the Times from continuing to publish the series. The newspaper appealed the decision. And in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court said the government did not adequately prove that publication of these documents would harm the country's national security. And so the press was permitted to continue publishing the documents.

Some analysts say there will always be a tug of war between the press and the government over national security.

Stephen Hess is with the Brookings Institution. He says, "Journalists shouldn't release, classically, the time that a warship is leaving the dock full of American troops going off to fight, which could be read by, seen by, an adversary. So a government has secrets, the press has an obligation, to the best of their ability, to find out what's going on, and in our country, actually, chooses not to run these secrets very often. Many people don't realize the degree to which our free press actually does choose to retain government secrets of which it becomes the judge of: should we print this or not?"

For his part, Christopher Simpson, a Journalism professor at American University, says most countries, including the U.S. government, tend to lean heavily in favor of national security concerns. "They are worried that if they make one little mistake, that something really bad will happen or someone could lose their life. And these concerns are not irrational, these are reasonable concerns."

But many journalists, including Ben Bradlee, say reporters pose no threat to the country's national security. "I'm 85,” says Bradley. “I've been in this business a long time and I cannot recall a case which we published which I could honestly say threatened the national security. First of all, I wouldn't do it if it threatened it."

Experts say in a democracy, there will always be a very delicate balance to be struck between, on the one hand, the needs of the government to protect the security of the state and, on the other hand, the needs of the media to be free, open and capable of criticizing the government.