Biden Must Restore America’s Reputation as a Beacon of Press Freedom
After four years of hostility to journalists and a free press, the United States must repair the damage Trump has done at home and abroad.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
One of the many outrages of the Trump administration has been its assault on press freedom. Enshrined in the First Amendment, the free press is a treasured constitutional principle, the subject of landmark Supreme Court decisions, and an underpinning of American civic life. It also matters in U.S. foreign policy.
Although foreign policy was relegated to the margins of this fraught campaign season, press freedom is a critical building block of democracy globally—and the restoration of U.S. credibility on press freedom should therefore be a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s planned drive to shore up democracy around the world.
Until four years ago, press freedom in the United States was mostly a back-burner issue with legal specialists, civil liberties groups, and media companies waging fights against government secrecy and to defend the line on issues like defamation and journalists’ right to protect their sources. That began to change in 2016, as then candidate Donald Trump ramped up attacks on the press during his campaign, fomenting hostility toward journalists.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, created to document infringements on press freedom and attacks on journalists, details a staggering 771 press freedom violations since its creation in 2017, including 147 arrests of journalists and 219 physical attacks. While even the president’s most incendiary comments toward the press—calling journalists “the enemy of the American people”— constitute protected free speech, his threats and acts of retaliation directed toward journalists and commentators—including withdrawing White House press passes and security clearances—violate the First Amendment.
The Trump White House’s assault on press freedom has resonated both nationally and globally. The president’s false lambasting of reputable news organizations as part of an anti-Trump cabal has undercut the American public’s faith in press freedom as a necessary pillar of democracy. It has also fed a deep schism in information consumption, exacerbating political polarization and allowing disinformation to flourish among communities that have been taught to distrust credible journalism.
Around the world, the United States’ high profile turnabout on press freedom has eased the way for similarly inclined leaders to constrain press freedoms. Leaders around the world, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have all parroted Trump’s cries of fake news, seeking to discredit critical media coverage. Arrests and attacks on journalists by law enforcement during this year’s racial justice protests made international headlines, undercutting the United States’ credibility in calling out similar excesses when they occur abroad.
All this has contributed to a slide in protections for the press globally. Freedom House’s 2019 report on media freedom was entitled “A Downward Spiral” and documented “concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector” in democracies succumbing to populist overreach including India, Hungary, the Philippines, and Serbia, alongside tightening strictures in more traditional authoritarian settings including Russia, China, and Iran. At least 250 journalists were imprisoned around the world at the end of 2019.
Trump’s campaign of vilification toward the press was an intentional and effective effort to lay the groundwork for future abuses of power by convincing his base of supporters to discount revelations of his misdeeds, including attacks on other facets of democracy such as anti-corruption safeguards and voting rights. By undercutting the role of the free press, leaders can shroud themselves in protective cover that makes self-dealing, manipulation, and even the dismantling of democracy possible with little accountability or oversight. The equivalent of snipping phone and internet cables before a burglary, stifling journalists is an early indication of a leader plotting to get away with something.
The incoming Biden administration should move swiftly to back up candidate Biden’s commitment to press freedom with decisive action. The change should begin at home, namely at the White House. Going beyond the basic respect for journalists that comes naturally to Biden, he should use the opportunity in speeches and statements to reinforce that his administration recognizes the media as a pillar of democracy.
The Trump White House has twice been ordered by a court to return journalists’ hard passes that were improperly withheld in retaliation for unwanted questions or verbal tussles with White House aides. A Biden administration should reboot its relationship with the press corps, name a highly respected press secretary, pare back the Trump administration’s tightened rules on credentialing, and ensure ample health and safety precautions that don’t impair access (several journalists caught COVID-19 after being in proximity to unmasked Trump administration spokespeople in recent months.)
But simply turning back the Trump administration’s transgressions won’t be enough. The Obama White House was faulted for its secrecy, prosecuting more government leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other prior administrations combined, ensnaring journalists in several such investigations, and stonewalling open records requests.
As it seeks to restore trust in federal agencies politicized by Trump and to boost the morale of scientists and other experts whose professional opinions were muzzled, a Biden administration should put a premium on openness and disclosure, requiring each cabinet secretary to identify ways to increase transparency, accessibility to the press, and public accountability.
Building outward from Washington, the racial justice protests in mid-2020 exposed glaring gaps in training and protocols regarding law enforcement respect for press freedom in the context of protests, making such demonstrations a dangerous environment for journalists. A Biden Justice Department should work with law enforcement agencies to develop guidelines and primers that ensure that press freedom rights are respected amid public assemblies, and that police are held accountable for violating press freedom and First Amendment rights.
Outside the country, the first order of business should be reversing the damage done by the worst abuses of the Trump administration. Chief among those is the ravaging of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), under newly installed CEO Michael Pack, which turned the respected Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia into ideologically tainted mouthpieces for the Trump administration through leadership purges and heavy-handed editorial directives. The agency’s bipartisan governance mechanism was gutted as part of a misguided reform effort enshrined in a 2018 law that only came into force with Pack’s confirmation in June this year.
The consolidation of power in a single CEO eliminated guardrails that had allowed these outlets to stand in contrast with most state-controlled media outlets around the world. A Biden administration should appoint a seasoned journalist to oversee these outlets in the near-term, publicly asserting their commitment to fact-based reporting. Biden should also undertake a searching review of the role that these media organs, founded to fight propaganda during World War II and the Cold War, should play in the digital age and of how their integrity can best be protected.
Biden must also end the politicized tit-for-tat battles with foreign governments over the status of foreign journalists in the United States and around the world. During the Trump administration, tensions over American journalists in China and representatives of Chinese state-controlled media in the United States have boiled over, curtailing the ability of leading news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal to report from mainland China. The United States needs to take a principled stand in favor of the ability of foreign correspondents to carry out their work without interference or threat.
Back in 2013, Biden admonished the Chinese government over its threats to expel U.S. journalists, helping to resolve a stalemate and enable critical reporting to proceed. Biden should prioritize restoring broader access for Western media organizations in his reboot of frayed relations with Beijing, even if it means, in return, rolling back some of the Trump administration’s countermeasures directed at Chinese state news agencies.
Finally, a Biden administration can help safeguard press freedoms worldwide. The U.S. Congress is contemplating measures to sharpen current targeted sanctions regimes applicable to individuals complicit in gross human rights abuses against journalists and to limit U.S. assistance to governments implicated in such abuses. Such sanctions would become even more effective if the United States could convince more nations to follow its lead in implementing similar measures, constricting the ability of tormenters of journalists to travel and keep assets in multiple jurisdictions.
The appointment of a special State Department envoy or ambassador-at-large focused on press freedom could help ensure a sustained focus on these issues, catalyze action, and push greater support, including through training and development assistance, for journalists and media organizations worldwide that are on the frontlines of testing these freedoms.
As the United States confronts the monumental tasks of restoring trust at home and credibility abroad, principled leadership on press freedom is an essential starting point.