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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey: Barr is 'sliming his own department' GOP Mueller critic says Flynn contacted him during special counsel probe: report Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report 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 ComeyComey: Barr is 'sliming his own department' Trump says campaign was 'conclusively spied on,' calls it 'treason' White House refuses House Judiciary's request for documents MORE to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information, and his Attorney General, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsChris Wallace: AG Barr 'clearly is protecting' Trump Appeals court rules Trump end of DACA was unlawful Roy Moore wants judge who ruled against him removed from case 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 ObamaSeveral factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again The Hill's 12:30 Report: Tough questions await Trump immigration plan 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 SchiffOvernight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon Schiff says DOJ hasn't complied with subpoena for Mueller report Key Republican 'convinced' Iran threats are credible MORE (D-Calif.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotTop Myanmar court rejects jailed Reuters journalists' final appeal Four decades of the Taiwan Relations Act remains a monument to our resolve to uphold democracy House passes series of measures hitting Russia, Putin MORE (R-Ohio). The other co-founder? Then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrudeau on tariff deal: Canadian and US businesses can get back to 'working constructively together' Congress has a duty to go through with the impeachment and public trial of President Trump Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again MORE (R-Ind.), who is now vice president. The Senate Human Rights Caucus—co-chaired by Sens. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMnuchin says carbon capture tax credit guidance will be out soon Mnuchin signals administration won't comply with subpoena for Trump tax returns Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions MORE (D-Del.) and  Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisLawmakers call for investigation after census hired registered sex offender Dem Senate campaign arm hits GOP lawmakers over Trump tax law Graham encourages Donald Trump Jr. to plead the Fifth MORE (R-N.C.)—also engages on press freedom issues. Last year, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDems plan 12-hour marathon Mueller report reading at Capitol Dems warn of 'constitutional crisis' but wary of impeachment Dem lawmaker warns of 'security risks' in awarding DC infrastructure contracts to state-owned firms MORE (D-Md.) teamed with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOhio State report documents 177 cases of sexual misconduct by team doctor Republicans defend drug company in spotlight over HIV medication prices Prosecutor appointed by Barr poised to enter Washington firestorm MORE (R-Ohio) to propose a federal shield law, and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyWhy Congress needs to bring back tax deduction for worker expenses Biden cements spot as 2020 front-runner The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's bid gets under Trump's skin MORE (D-Pa.), Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Huawei says inclusion on US trade blacklist is in 'no one's interest' Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran MORE (R-Fla.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse to vote on retirement bill next week Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order to protect US networks from Chinese tech | Huawei downplays order | Trump declines to join effort against online extremism | Facebook restricts livestreaming | FCC proposes new tool against robocalls Senate Dems introduce election security bill requiring paper ballots 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.