On World Press Freedom Day, elected officials must commit to keeping press freedom nonpartisan
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE’s attacks on the press continue unabated. He is now well over 1,000 Tweets targeting the press, and they have real-world impact. Trump’s verbal strikes on Megyn Kelly triggered so much online harassment that she had to hire bodyguards. Trump also reportedly urged former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyBook: FBI sex crimes investigator helped trigger October 2016 public probe of Clinton emails Trump jabs at FBI director over testimony on Russia, antifa Graham: Comey to testify about FBI's Russia probe, Mueller declined invitation MORE to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information, and his Attorney General, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez call for convention to decide Puerto Rico status White House officials voted by show of hands on 2018 family separations: report MORE, boasts that Trump administration is pursuing three times as many leaks investigations as the Obama administration and “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas."

Given his office and Twitter following, Trump holds unique power. Some of his fellow Republicans make their own headlines for similarly engaging in accusing news outlets of “fake news,” having reporters arrested for asking questions, or, worse, threatening or even carrying out physical attacks against journalists.

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Seen within this frame, and in the context of recent news coverage, these actions could create the impression that freedom of the press—the rights to report the news, to obtain the news, to analyze public issues—is a partisan issue.

Yet the truth about partisan politics and press freedom is far more complex: throughout U.S. history, elected officials and leaders of nearly all political traditions have both attacked and championed the press—and it goes back to the founding of our nation.

In 1798, a decade after the signing of the Constitution, a Federalist-dominated Congress passed, and Federalist President John Adams signed, The Sedition Act of 1798. This law criminalized false statements critical of the government. One supposed goal: to quiet pro-Jefferson newspapers ahead of the 1800 election.

It didn’t work—Adams lost to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, who is known for many things, including his robust defenses of civil liberties. When he took office, he pardoned everyone convicted under the Sedition Act.

However, Jefferson was no fan of the news publications of his time. As he wrote in 1807:

“It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

(Jefferson also suggested that a newspaper editor “begin a reformation” by dividing their paper into four chapters: Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Lies.)

According to historian Joseph Ellis, during his second term, Jefferson even urged state attorneys general in New England to prosecute newspaper editors for sedition for their criticism of his administration.

Adams and Jefferson, both Founding Fathers, argued for the right to a free press because they knew it was central to keeping an open society alive. But they were also highly critical of newspapers and willing to go after the press in order to secure political goals.

Has anything changed? Fast forward more than two centuries, past multiple presidents with mixed press freedom records, and the last decade appears as conflicted as the country’s first. Republican president George W. Bush left office in 2008, replaced by Democratic president Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina Majority of voters say Trump should not nominate a Supreme Court justice: poll MORE. Both presidents defended freedom of the press publicly, and diplomatically. Yet both the Bush and Obama administrations aggressively went after journalists, issuing subpoenas to try to force them to testify and reveal their sources in criminal cases. The Bush administration did not value the press and sought to counter their work in various ways. The Obama administration is notorious for using the Espionage Act to go after alleged journalistic sources—in fact, more than all other administrations combined. It also spied on reporters’ phone records and successfully sought search warrants for a reporter’s emails.

But the landscape today does appear different. Adams and Jefferson were rarely publicly critical of the press; much of what we know of their views is from private correspondence. They did not actively whip up anti-press sentiment, or meet with and praise global leaders with anti-press records. Trump’s stature and social media presence presents a distinctive challenge. Global leaders are now quoting the president in denying human rights reports and justifying the jailing of journalists and dissidents. This didn’t happen in 1800—or even a few years ago.

However, prominent members of Trump’s own party—Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—do stand up publicly against his attacks on the press, and very likely would do the same regarding any attempt by Trump to crack down on the media. Even cabinet members, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, distance themselves from the president when he attacks the press.

Beyond internal partisan politics, there are many promising examples of bipartisan press freedom advocacy in Washington. The Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press is co-chaired by co-founder Reps. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTop Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Overnight Defense: House to vote on military justice bill spurred by Vanessa Guillén death | Biden courts veterans after Trump's military controversies MORE (D-Calif.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotLawmakers call for expanded AI role in education, business to remain competitive The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden couldn't be more different on climate change MORE (R-Ohio). The other co-founder? Then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election McConnell urges GOP senators to 'keep your powder dry' on Supreme Court vacancy MORE (R-Ind.), who is now vice president. The Senate Human Rights Caucus—co-chaired by Sens. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsBiden promises Democratic senators help in battleground states Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-Del.) and  Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTrump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally Momentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Vulnerable GOP incumbents embrace filling Supreme Court seat this year MORE (R-N.C.)—also engages on press freedom issues. Last year, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Trump payroll-tax deferral for federal workers sparks backlash Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe MORE (D-Md.) teamed with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election House passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus Republicans call for Judiciary hearing into unrest in cities run by Democrats MORE (R-Ohio) to propose a federal shield law, and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySecond GOP senator to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus GAO report finds brokers offered false info on coverage for pre-existing conditions Catholic group launches .7M campaign against Biden targeting swing-state voters MORE (D-Pa.), Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Florida senators pushing to keep Daylight Savings Time during pandemic Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll MORE (R-Fla.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGOP senator blocks Schumer resolution aimed at Biden probe as tensions run high Republican Senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal Hillicon Valley: TikTok, Oracle seek Trump's approval as clock winds down | Hackers arrested for allegedly defacing U.S. websites after death of Iranian general | 400K people register to vote on Snapchat MORE (D-Ore.) led an annual resolution highlighting the importance of press freedom and condemning attacks against journalists around the world.

Rooted in the Constitution, people of all political affiliations share the value of press freedom, for a variety reasons. Some are concerned with protecting fundamental rights and dignity; others with uncovering corruption and holding power to account; others in simply trying to have or safeguard a livelihood; and others still are concerned with all of these.

As Sen. Graham said, “The backbone of democracy is a free press.” History shows that a free and independent press alone cannot secure a democracy, but a democracy cannot survive long without one, for society without a free press proves fertile ground for corruption, secrecy, and authoritarian behavior. This means U.S. elected officials of all partisan affiliations must protect freedom of the press across political lines—even when they don’t like the news.

Michael De Dora is Washington advocacy manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists., where he leads efforts to advance press freedom around the world with the U.S. government and other policymakers in Washington, D.C.