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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency 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 ComeyHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe Comey: Mueller may be in 'fourth quarter' of Russia probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV MORE to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information, and his Attorney General, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attack on Sessions may point to his departure Hillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe Sessions in Chicago: If you want more shootings, listen to ACLU, Antifa, Black Lives Matter 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 ObamaMcCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not Time for sunshine on Trump-Russia investigation 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 SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly Russia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe MORE (D-Calif.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotDems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests Support the Trademark Licensing Protection Act Congress losing faith in Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi MORE (R-Ohio). The other co-founder? Then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIndiana sisters with history of opposing Pence donate millions to Dems Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Overnight Defense: Trump marks 9/11 anniversary | Mattis says Assad 'has been warned' on chemical weapons | US identifies first remains of returned Korean war troops MORE (R-Ind.), who is now vice president. The Senate Human Rights Caucus—co-chaired by Sens. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsJudiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Sunday shows preview: White House officials on offensive in wake of anonymous NY Times op-ed MORE (D-Del.) and  Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTrump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' North Carolina governor: We saw ‘significant damage’ in eastern part of state GOP senator on allegation against Kavanaugh: 'Why on Earth' wasn't it discussed earlier? MORE (R-N.C.)—also engages on press freedom issues. Last year, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in tech MORE (D-Md.) teamed with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanRussia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly Jordan says FBI used 'crushing power of the state' to probe Trump campaign based on dossier MORE (R-Ohio) to propose a federal shield law, and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyObama to hit campaign trail in Pa. for gubernatorial, Senate candidates Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security Five biggest surprises in midterm fight MORE (D-Pa.), Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' For Poland, a time for justice Judiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh MORE (R-Fla.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden says foreign hackers targeted personal accounts of senators, staffers Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless 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.