The administration of Donald Trump, the most vociferous antagonist of a free press in modern history, came to an end this week with the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. President Biden campaigned on a promise to return to respect for the press, but we at Freedom of the Press Foundation know the hard work of protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists and newsrooms will require much more than just a change in rhetoric.
To be sure, Trump's broad attacks on the very notion of an independent press were exceptional. From the campaign trail, where he promised to “open up” libel law, to the revelation that he privately discussed jailing journalists with a top law enforcement official, to the near-constant social media tirades against reporters and media organizations, Trump cast himself as an enemy of the press even as he was trying to cast the press as “the enemy of the people.” Against that rhetorical background, actual incidents of press freedom violations skyrocketed in his final year in office.
The Biden administration has already been lauded for striking a new tone. But refraining from insulting and delegitimizing reporters on a daily basis is an incredibly low bar. It is by the actions of its Justice Department and intelligence agencies that the Biden administration should ultimately be judged.
Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president for eight years, often eloquently defended ideals of press freedom in speeches and interviews, yet his administration’s actions were some of the most destructive since the Nixon era. In fact, many of its decisions — from the Justice Department’s use of the Espionage Act against journalistic sources, its battle to eviscerate reporter’s privilege, the deployment of dubious and invasive surveillance practices, and its abuse of the classification system — laid the groundwork for the anti-press playbook that Trump would later employ.
In an initial briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press. We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.” And we certainly welcome the fact that some norms around press access and communication are already being restored on Biden’s first day in office.
However, many concrete questions remain. What is the Biden administration’s position on the Justice Department rules to protect journalists from surveillance? Will they support much needed reform of the Freedom of Information Act process? Will the Justice Department hold local police departments accountable who violate reporters’ rights? How will they use, and potentially abuse, the state secrets privilege and broken classification system? And where are they on the ongoing prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which threatens to criminalize national security reporting? We don’t know yet.
Our friends at the Knight First Amendment Institute laid out eleven actions the Biden administration can take to improve press freedom, and it means seriously reforming many of the Obama administration’s policies, as well as Trump’s.
We are hopeful that President Biden and his administration will take the difficult steps necessary to restore the protections required for a free and unfettered press. A truly free press, one that is an essential component for a free society, is not secured by merely touting the qualities of a robust Fourth Estate. It is preserved by ironclad policies protecting all journalists’ rights and the rule of law.