Bloomberg has thoughts on press freedom; the other candidates should give us theirs, too

Bloomberg has thoughts on press freedom; the other candidates should give us theirs, too
© Greg Nash

Last November, each of the presidential campaigns received a questionnaire about an issue seldom discussed on the campaign trail, but one crucial to our democracy — freedom of the press. To date, only Michael BloombergMichael BloombergFormer Bloomberg staffer seeks class-action lawsuit over layoffs Bloomberg spent over 0M on presidential campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response MORE has replied.

Where are the rest?

This is a trying time for journalism. It’s a moment begging for new ideas to build trust, for a new tone to our discourse, for transparency over obscurity. A good place to start is with those who seek to occupy the White House.

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That’s why we at the National Press Club Journalism Institute, together with the National Press Club, the Society for Professional Journalists and other industry partners, asked presidential candidates from both parties to describe what a free press means to them, to define their obligations to the free flow of information, and to articulate their commitments to transparency. Bloomberg deserves credit for giving the questions serious consideration.

The Bloomberg campaign said the former three-term New York mayor wants the next president to be a “firm and outspoken champion” of the news media, has misgivings about the need for a federal media shield law and would restore regular press briefings to the White House.

Bloomberg, of course, is not a disinterested party. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which includes Bloomberg News. Bloomberg Philanthropies is a donor to the National Press Club and the NPCJI. Widely respected, the news organization has nonetheless drawn flack for a policy of not investigating Bloomberg as a candidate and for applying that policy to the other Democratic presidential candidates.

The Institute submitted the same questionnaire to President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE’s campaign as well, though his track record answers some of the questions, and his contempt for journalists and news organizations is a recurrent theme in his Twitter feed.

But over the course of the presidential campaign most other candidates have given only passing reference to issues of press freedoms.

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At the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE took note of the president’s disdain. “When the American president refers to unfavorable press coverage as the product of the ‘enemy of the people,’ democracy around the world gets weaker,” he said.

At the same debate, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging Democratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men MORE (D-Minn.) noted that in separate Senate Judiciary Committee hearings she asked Trump attorneys general Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAlabama postpones March 31 GOP Senate runoff Biden has broken all the 'rules' of presidential primaries The Hill's Campaign Report: Defiant Sanders vows to stay in race MORE and William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrDemocratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging Maduro pushes back on DOJ charges, calls Trump 'racist cowboy' DOJ charges Venezuela's Maduro with drug trafficking MORE whether they would imprison journalists for doing their jobs — and neither gave her an unequivocal answer. “My dad was a newspaperman,” Klobuchar said. “So this is not just talking points to me.”

Meanwhile, Andrew YangAndrew YangSolving the coronavirus economic downturn — good psychology makes for good politics and policy Andrew Yang nonprofit to dole out checks to 500 households Senate GOP mulls forgivable loans to businesses to halt layoffs, bankruptcies MORE has proposed invigorating journalism and sowing news deserts with a $1 billion fund administered by the Federal Communications Commission to make grants to for-profit, non-profit, and local government entities to help support local news operations.

Good for them for addressing the issue.

It deserves more.

It’s time to hear from the rest of the pack. It’s time for voters to demand a commitment to press freedom. It’s time to ask: Do you believe the president has a role in restoring faith in a free press and the checks it places on our institutions?

Record numbers of journalists are being imprisoned abroad. Killings, miraculously down, still continue. In many cases, as in the coldblooded murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the responsible parties are state actors who make a mockery of justice. So we have asked the candidates how they would use diplomatic tools to promote a free press across the globe. 

Would candidates grant asylum to journalists such as Emilio Gutierrez Soto, who fled Mexico amid death threats from the military? Gutierrez' asylum claims have twice been rejected by an immigration judge; deportation would mean returning to the deadliest country for journalists.

At home, the last two administrations have targeted journalistic sources as if they were spies. Forty-nine states have statutes or case law that protect reporters from revealing sources to government officials. Yet, the federal government offers no such protection.

Journalists working in the United States have been detained, their equipment confiscated, their homes searched. Federal agencies and the Supreme Court have limited information available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. And journalists are routinely denied access to government experts, no matter the subject.

Journalism is the key to an informed public. And in the end, only an informed public can govern itself. We need to know where the candidates stand. It’s time.

Jim Kuhnhenn is a veteran Washington correspondent for the Associated Press and Knight Ridder who is now the Press Freedom Fellow for the National Press Club Journalism Institute. He is a former member of the congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents and a former president of the Washington Press Club Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @jkuhnhenn