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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller 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 ComeyIf Mueller's report lacks indictments, collusion is a delusion Conservatives wage assault on Mueller report Hillicon Valley: Mueller delivers report, ending investigation | FEMA exposed info of 2.3M disaster survivors | Facebook asks judge to toss DC privacy lawsuit | Trump picks his first CTO | FCC settles lawsuit over net neutrality records MORE to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information, and his Attorney General, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMueller's investigation ends, but divisive political circus will continue Mueller delivers report to Justice, ending investigation Trump says 'people will not stand' for Mueller 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 ObamaJennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez's engagement win Obama's endorsement Pence lobbies anti-Trump donors to support reelection: report The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators 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 SchiffShowdown looms over Mueller report Pelosi, Dems plot strategy after end of Mueller probe If Mueller's report lacks indictments, collusion is a delusion MORE (D-Calif.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotHouse passes series of measures hitting Russia, Putin Trump applauded for walking away from 'bad' North Korea deal The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race MORE (R-Ohio). The other co-founder? Then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOvernight Health Care: Trump officials sued over Medicaid work requirements in New Hampshire | Analysis contradicts HHS claims on Arkansas Medicaid changes | Azar signals HHS won't back down on e-cigs Trump health chief backs needle exchanges in anti-HIV strategy Pence travels to Nebraska to survey flood damage MORE (R-Ind.), who is now vice president. The Senate Human Rights Caucus—co-chaired by Sens. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Dem senator: 'Appropriate' for Barr, Mueller to testify publicly about Russia probe Coons after Russia probe: House Dems need to use power in 'focused and responsible way' MORE (D-Del.) and  Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOvernight Health Care: CDC pushes for expanding HIV testing, treatment | Dem group launches ads attacking Trump on Medicare, Medicaid cuts | Hospitals, insurers spar over surprise bills | O'Rourke under pressure from left on Medicare for all Dem group launches ads attacking Trump's 'hypocrisy on Medicare and Medicaid cuts' Trump keeps tight grip on GOP MORE (R-N.C.)—also engages on press freedom issues. Last year, Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinEx-Georgia candidate calls for probe, says more than a hundred thousand votes went 'missing' Dems struggle to turn page on Omar controversy Schumer: Trump 'redefined chutzpah' by calling Dems an 'anti-Jewish party' MORE (D-Md.) teamed with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump, Congress brace for Mueller findings Jim Jordan on Mueller probe: 'Distraction is finally over' Papadopoulos tweets 'time to hit back' after Mueller report delivered to DOJ MORE (R-Ohio) to propose a federal shield law, and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyTrump officials take bold steps on Medicaid Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Trump health chief reveals talks with states on Medicaid block grants | New head of FDA faces tough test | Trump officials defends work requirements in court Trump health chief reveals talks with states on Medicaid block grants MORE (D-Pa.), Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight Rubio's pragmatic thinking on China MORE (R-Fla.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Mueller delivers report, ending investigation | FEMA exposed info of 2.3M disaster survivors | Facebook asks judge to toss DC privacy lawsuit | Trump picks his first CTO | FCC settles lawsuit over net neutrality records Treasury expands penalty relief to more taxpayers Overnight Health Care: Senators seek CBO input on preventing surprise medical bills | Oversight panel seeks OxyContin documents | Pharmacy middlemen to testify on prices | Watchdog warns air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk' 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.