New York Times v. Sullivan Essay

New York Times v. Sullivan Essay.

  1. Introduction

Communication refers to the exchange of ideas or information between two or more people. Information composes of voice (e.g. telephone, handy talky etc), data (short message services/SMS, facsimile etc), and video (video streaming, video conference etc). Although the types of information are still the same, their importance always gets stronger eventually.

Information is the root of actions and becomes more important in this information age. This is because its importance has even doubled, tripled, or even infinite as people in this age understand the necessities to learn about incidences in other part of the world and become more knowledgeable to use appropriate information for their advantages.

As the sense of knowing give reasons and confidence to act towards issues, information, if delivered truthfully, can be the instruments of great deeds. In contrast if the information is manipulated it will lead people to disastrous wrongful acts.

Televisions, newspapers, magazines, radios and the internet are now becoming main sources of public information where we can find out what happened in the world.

The media, therefore, have been noteworthy sources of information although it faces great challenges since readers now seriously question about the truth of information presented in the media. Readers think that most of media tend to create public opinion that the sources want, driven by their political concerns.

This is true since politic, in its nature, is capable to influence and control everyone’s life and lifestyles, and has always in the spotlight. As society gets wiser, attention on politics has never been this scrutiny. With very powerful people or party played their hands in it, politics has been one of the strongest reasons why the role of media as a trustworthy messenger is questioned. In line with the idea, Lynden Johnson says”reporters are puppet, they simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings.”

In this paper, we will discuss the role of media in setting the political agenda. We take into account the 1964’s case “New York Times vs. Sullivan” in describing the topic. Prior to the discussion, we will develop the idea of media power, and the framing, priming, and agenda setting.

  1. New York Times vs. Sullivan
    • Fact

Back to the 1964 where the feud between New York Times and Sullivan existed, we witnessed that the case has gradually changed the maneuver of U.S. newspapers. Nowadays, we witness that U.S. media are paying a great attention on Paris Hilton than on Capitol Hill. The reason is that today’s media are less concerned to expose the misdeeds and motivations of powerful people or public officials.

According to Goldman (2004), the case of New York Times v. Sullivan begun when New York Times published a full-page ad that suspected the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a concerted effort to tear down King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote.

The ad soon arouses the ire of a public official named L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner. The commissioner then filed a libel action against the Times and brought four black ministers who supported the ad into the court for claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally (Goldman).

Under the auspices of the Alabama law, Sullivan finally won the case and received $500,000. This was happened since under the state’s law Sullivan did not even have to prove that he had been harmed. In contrast, Times’ defense saying the ad was invalid since the ad contained factual errors (Goldman).

2.2       Learning from the case of New York Times v. Sullivan

The decision of the Court that favored Sullivan was based on the First Amendment, which “protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity” (Goldman).

Furthermore, Goldman explains the new ruling, in effect to this day, says “it is not enough for a plaintiff to show that a printed or televised account is false and defamatory. Under such circumstances, the plaintiff needs to show that the media has reported erroneous and recklessly ignoring facts.

The actual malice rule at a minimum encourages newspapers to take risks defaming people they otherwise would not take. The new ruling makes media to have the best defense when dealing with sue by a public figure. He adds that such defense would make it very difficult to sue newspapers and television stations even if they got an entire story wrong. Unfortunately, the case of Times vs. Sullivan have driven the press a little more arrogant than it needs to be when covering politicians or public figures.

III.      How Powerful Is Media?

Mc Combs and Shaw in their book the Emergence of American Political Issue, state that today’s media have the powerful function to organize how the world looks for us. They might not successfully control our minds, but they are undeniably capable to “direct” our everyday thoughts.

In similar tone, Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder in his book News That Matters, says that by paying attention to one issue and neglecting others, television is able to decide what American believed to be the most important issue to think about.

For instance, Israel – Palestinian lifetime conflict has been America’s most important concerns in 2003, and judging from the nature of the issue (e.g. atrocities, suicide bombing, etc), it is newsworthy, but as the media turn their focus to the Iraq war, Schwarzenegger’s governor election and the California Wildfires, the Israel-Palestinian issue is somehow diminished, although the debacle is not even approaching a win-win solution (“Anti Propaganda Watch”).

  1. Framing, Priming and Agenda Setting

Framing is the process of making a “meaning” out of incidents or stories. In the effort of building a line of comprehension between journalists and the readers, the frames are often drawn from. It is said to often chosen unintentionally. As an example, when a journalist is making a story about the high rising rate of poverty in a state, he or she will have to do what is called thematic framing, which means that eventually, a connection will have to be made between the increasing rate of poverty and the state government’s policies. While in periodic framing, the routine nature of the story derive journalists to put the blame on individual  actors, preventing audience from making a generalization of the stories (London).

Priming is done when a journalist gives an extra weight onto an issue or an opinion, allowing people’s mind to have a change in their opinion. This is usually done by giving extra amount of coverage, making an issue salient while others not.

Agenda Setting is even more conspicuous than the two terms we have mentioned before. It is a process of giving a certain theme over incidents that happens in a coverage area. By using materials that are sensitive to society, journalist can properly “put in ideas on people’s head”. For example, research shows that a single exposure on a violent crime-related news can heightened people’s fear of being victimized, which then gave the idea that violent crime is a very important issue (“Media Effects”).

One of the most attractive issue on priming and agenda setting is the LA Times anti-Israel Propaganda. In the join the boycott website, there are enough reasons to make visitors of the site hate the LA Times. According to the website, the boycott is due the intolerable bias on news coverage relating Israel-Palestinian ‘endless’ debacle. Furthermore, it shows that LA times has done all of the three forbidden acts of journalism we have addressed before. This situation also applies to the case of New York Times v. Sullivan in which the Times has set up a political agenda about Black community to vote.

  1. Conclusion

The role of media in our society is unbelievably important. Truthful coverage is always a worthy achievement. Politics does not come in the form of campaigns, elections, and the affairs of big government, but also the press as mind setters of the society.

Furthermore, the new ruling, in effect since the case of New York Times v. Sullivan to this day, favors media to expose the misdeeds conducted by politicians or public figures in which the new ruling enables media to cover politicians aggressively without fear of lawsuits.

However, the audiences still have absolute control to choose what they want or do not want to value what journalists distinguish as important. Nevertheless, the psychological implications of framing, priming and agenda setting are less significant. The existence of a picture and the atmosphere of the language can be a gentle but powerful way to alter opinions to the preferred direction.


Goldman, Jerry. “New York Times v. Sullivan.” OYEZ. 2004. Retrieved April 2, 2005 <>

 “How Public Is the NPR?” Retrieved March 19, 2005 from <>

Iyengar, Shanto. “Media Effects.” 1998. Retrieved April 2, 2005 from

“LA Times Israel anti-propaganda Watch.” 2004. Retrieved April 2, 2005 from <>

London, Scott. “How Media Frames Political Issues.” 1993. Retrieved April 2, 2005 from <>

Pulle, Matt. “Don’t Kill the Messenger.” Nashville Scene. 2005. Retrieved April 2, 2005 from <>

U.S. Supreme Court. “New York Times v. Sullivan.” Retrieved April 2, 2005 from <>

New York Times v. Sullivan Essay