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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: 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 ComeyNadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime We've lost sight of the real scandal Former Obama officials willing to testify on McCabe's behalf: report MORE to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information, and his Attorney General, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment McCabe says he would 'absolutely not' cut a deal with prosecutors 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 ObamaMost voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Warren picks up key endorsement from Iowa state treasurer 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 SchiffTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Schiff says Trump intel chief won't comply with subpoena over whistleblower Sunday shows - Guns dominate after Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotJudiciary approves new investigative powers with eyes on impeachment Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (R-Ohio). The other co-founder? Then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBillionaire to host top-dollar fundraiser in New York City for President Trump Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Trump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism MORE (R-Ind.), who is now vice president. The Senate Human Rights Caucus—co-chaired by Sens. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMedia and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Bill to return B in unredeemed bonds advances Grassley: Kavanaugh classmate didn't contact Senate panel MORE (D-Del.) and  Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTillis trails Democratic Senate challenger by 2 points: poll Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-N.C.)—also engages on press freedom issues. Last year, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort Top Oversight Democrat demands immigration brass testify MORE (D-Md.) teamed with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel Jordan Trump slams Democrats as 'shameful' after Lewandowski hearing Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader House Republicans want details on Democrats' trips to Mexico MORE (R-Ohio) to propose a federal shield law, and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyEx-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs The Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Democrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines MORE (D-Pa.), Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign Republicans wary of US action on Iran California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE (R-Fla.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Lobbying groups ask Congress for help on Trump tariffs 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.