A Tense Relationship: Freedom of the Press, Presidents and Our Presidential Candidates Weekly Presidential Candidate Moment

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Presidents have an uneasy relationship with the press. The more an executive dislikes accountability or feels that secrets are vital to their goals, the more difficult this relationship. Sources, often in the form of whistleblowers, are also more likely to be prosecuted the more uncomfortable our president is with the protections afforded the press. 

We have seen what it looks like when an executive publicly limits media access, but most presidents are savvier or at least more covert in their discomfort with this relationship. While Trump more often publicly derides the press and their secret sources, Obama prosecuted eight whistleblowers, more than any other president in history. 

This week’s Presidential Candidate Moment explores the our Democratic candidate’s positions through a series of tweets or tweet threads, including quotes, videos, articles and official position statements, found at the end of this article. Each of the candidates are included, but some have provided more information about this topic than others. 

What does “Freedom of the Press” mean to individuals? 

In a video included in the tweets below, Robert Reich tells us that “American Democracy relies on its citizens having enough information to make good decisions to hold elected officials accountable. We rely on the press to tell us what the government is doing so that we can decide whether or not to let them keep doing it.” 

In other words, we rely on the press to keep our democracy healthy and working. It is called tyranny when the Executive Branch is allowed to operate in the shadows, unfettered by the complaints of citizens. By the only way we know what is happening in the shadows is through the intermediaries, the media. 

Robert Reich also lays out four patterns that demagogues worldwide exhibit

  • They berate the media
  • They limit media access
  • They threaten the media and their sources (whistleblowers)
  • They bypass the media and communicate with the people directly 

When the media calls Trump out on lies, he responds that they are dishonest, disgusting, scum. He berates with lies and sometimes, as was the case with the disabled journalist, with physical taunting. 

Trump has stopped giving press conferences altogether, and actively works to limit press access. It has happened more than once that the Kremlin has reported on actions by our president before the US press knew it had happened because media access has been restricted. 

Fortunately, the Sedition Act–the law that made talking badly about the president a crime–was repealed on December 13, 1920, or Trump’s accusations against the journalists would have teeth. His threats to open up libel and his lawsuits against accusers of his wrongdoings can have a broader chilling effect on all journalists and on whistleblowers.

Once in the courts, the president would have to prove that malice was the intent of the source or journalist, but harassment, job loss and even death threats often precede any chance to get to the courts. Many who would otherwise have merit for coming forward simply feel that the truth is not worth such a high personal price. This chilling effect means it is vital that we understand where our presidential candidates stand on the protections of the First Amendment. 

Demagogues bypass the media. One word: Twitter. 

The tension between the president and the press is all about accountability. If we want our elected officials to be accountable to us as our elected officials, then freedom of the press must be protected. 

“The First Amendment is the safety valve of our democracy,” says US free press advocate Trevor Timm (TED Talk: How free is our freedom of the press?). “It has always been the bulwark against secret government, against authoritarianism and against tyranny.” 

If we want to ensure that these dangerous precedents are not emulated by future presidents, then we must make certain that our presidential candidates are committed to protecting the press, and to not seeing whistleblowers as the enemy. They must be committed to the realities of accountability and hold a higher commitment to the Constitution to which they pledge an oath of allegiance. 

Explore the candidates positions through the following tweets. Follow the threads for more complete information by the press and the candidates’ own websites. There are also a couple videos about the First Amendment and the Freedom of the Press, if you want to beef up your knowledge about this important topic. 

Search the hashtag #WPCM on Twitter to read prior editions of the Weekly Presidential Candidate Moment. Follow the accounts of the authors of these tweets, members of #GeeksResist to follow some great resisters. 

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Rosie is an active member in #GeeksResists, and an active resister of decades. Each week Rosie and a group of Geeks explores an issue and the Democratic Presidential Candidates' opinions and policies on that issue, publishing the results as a Moment on Twitter. You can always find the most current Moment pinned to @BKPhilanthropy's Twitter profile page, or search through #PresidentialCandidates2020.

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