Free press needs transparency, security after Capitol attacks
On Jan. 6, I joined with millions of Americans who watched in shock, dismay and profound sadness as a demonstration objecting to the certification of the 2020 presidential election turned into a deadly riot in the halls of the United States Capitol Building. As a former two-term senator from Oregon, it is hard to fathom that the place I honor and cherish as the secular temple of our democracy could be desecrated by a domestic mob.
Yet, I take solace in the work of another pillar of American democracy during this dark period — our free and open press.
Reporting from inside and around the Capitol, journalists from broadcast TV and radio to newspapers and digital platforms documented the violence, chaos and panic unfolding in front of them live, on-air and online. With their words and images, they brought home the chilling scenes of this unprecedented assault on our democracy as it unfolded.
Since Jan. 6, journalists have continued their work to provide a clearer and more comprehensive picture of this attack on the democratic process. They have documented the minutes, days and weeks leading up to the riot. The media has delved deep into the assault on the Capitol and detailed the failures of law enforcement to prevent the violence. They have examined the impact that the events and their aftermath will have on the future of our country.
The work of the press to keep the American public informed during these dark times has been admirable, valuable and — because of an unacceptable and alarming lack of information provided by law enforcement officials — necessary. Inexplicably, federal law enforcement agencies that have been presumably investigating the Capitol riot — including the U.S. Capitol Police, FBI, Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security — have been slow to hold in-person briefings to answer question, explain their findings and inform the public about possible future attacks. Indeed, Americans waited almost a full week after the attack for the first press conference by law enforcement about the Capitol attacks. At a time when our democracy has been shaken to its core, this lack of transparency is inexcusable.
Thanks to the free press, it has been reported that the FBI is warning of armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Social media posts on pages organizing these protests have also labeled reporters who would be covering these events as “soft targets” and possible victims of violent acts.
In light of these warnings, it is imperative that law enforcement not only address the American people about the possibility of danger in the days ahead, but also provide security briefings to news media to help keep journalists safe while reporting from the field.
During demonstrations at the Capitol and elsewhere across the country, members of the media were bullied, verbally harassed and physically intimidated. Some were assaulted as they tried to do their jobs or left in the face of violent threats. Others had equipment stolen and destroyed. “Murder the media” was even scratched into a door of the Capitol. Amidst all of this, America’s journalists showed incredible resolve to inform the public, report the facts and uphold the First Amendment’s enduring principle guaranteeing the freedom of the press.
Jan. 6 was a new day of infamy in the chronicle of American history. Yet, the press did not relent in the face of danger, and we are grateful to the dedicated journalists who risked their lives to cover this monumental story. Now, as journalists prepare to cover additional protests, it is of supreme importance that law enforcement equip them with the necessary tools and information to stay out of harm’s way while doing their jobs during these dangerous times.
Gordon Smith has been president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters since 2009. He is a former two-term Republican U.S. senator from Oregon.
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