To say that the past four years have been rough on the news media would be a vast understatement. As President, Donald Trump has repeatedly slammed the press for publishing “fake news,” chastised individual reporters for asking him tough questions, repealed the press credentials of reporters he doesn’t like, and raged against the alleged biases of Twitter and Facebook. The hostility towards the press promoted by Trump and other rightwing politicians no doubt contributed to the recent wave of physical attacks on and arrests of journalists by police during the mass protests over the murder of George Floyd. Even more serious, the economic downturn unleashed by the pandemic has led to thousands of newsroom layoffs and countless furloughs and layoffs at news organizations around the country. Now that Joe Biden is President-Elect and the tumultuous Trump era is finally coming to an (undignified) end, it is time to consider what a Biden-Harris administration could do to revitalize our news media and better protect the rights of journalists.
The President and the Damage Done
In attacking the press, Trump did not confine himself to angry tongue-lashings at press briefings and nasty tweets. He and his administration took actions that endangered reporters’ lives, adopted policies that undermined a free and open Internet, and sought to weaken online platforms’ protections against libel suits.
For instance, in May 2019, Trump’s Justice Department charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917 for publicizing classified documents that detailed US wars crimes in Iraq. In June 2019, the Department of Justice began legal proceedings in the UK to extradite Assange to the US for trial. If transported to the US, Assange would face trial for espionage and conspiracy, and the possibility of up to 175 years in jail. The UK judge intends to issue a verdict on the US extradition of in January. The impact of the administration’s effort to extradite Assange from the UK will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism for years to come.
Moreover, Trump bragged to reporter Bob Woodward that he prevented Congress from sanctioning Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman over the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi; “I saved his ass... I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop,” Trump told Woodward. Weeks after the murder, the White House released a remarkable statement exonerating the Saudi royal family of culpability in Khashoggi’s murder and shamelessly boasting about the millions in weapons sales Trump had negotiated with them.
Trump has personally encouraged violence against reporters, praising Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte for throwing a reporter to the ground and punching him after the reporter asked Gianforte a question about GOP healthcare policy.
Shortly after taking office, Trump appointed former Verizon corporate counsel Ajit Pai as chair of the Federal Communication Commission. As chair of the FCC, Pai presided over the repeal of Obama-era “network neutrality” rules that prevent Internet Service Providers (like Verizon) from blocking, slowing or discriminating against any legal content moving across their networks.
In July of 2020, Pai’s FCC took steps to regulate social media and Internet sites that moderate or flag misinformation posted by users. And now Trump is threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act unless Congress rescinds Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act, a provision that shields social media platforms from liability for their users’ posts.
To make matters worse, the Trump administration has stood idly by while the current economic crisis has devastated the news outlets people depend on for vital information. Trump’s refusal to push Senate Republicans to pass the HEROES Act has denied local media outlets access to Payroll Protection Program loans that could’ve saved countless newsroom jobs. And his 2021 budget proposal cuts funding for public broadcasting entirely, just when the need for funding is the greatest.
What the Biden Administration Should Do to Make Things Better
So, what exactly should the Biden administration do to repair damage done during the Trump presidency to the press, freedom of expression, and working journalists?
Project Censored—a media watchdog organization that, for more than 40 years, has opposed censorship and advocated for the importance of unfettered journalism for democratic self-government—has long supported stronger protections for journalist’s rights and policies that strengthen an independent press. The Project’s work provides a blueprint for what the Biden administration could do in its first year to address problems that Trump has either created or multiplied:
- Amnesty for Julian Assange. Biden could strike a blow for the rights of journalists everywhere by dropping all charges against Assange and pledging never again to use the Espionage Act to punish a publisher of verifiably true information.
- Stand Up for Journalists’ Rights Here and Abroad. Trump did his best to sweep the Saudis’ brazen murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi under the rug. After he is sworn in, Biden should release an unclassified CIA report about the murder to the general public, should impose stiffer sanctions on the Saudi officials implicated in the murder, and should freeze all weapon deals with the Kingdom until those responsible have been brought to justice.
But Biden should also stand up for the rights of journalists here at home. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, 301 journalists have been attacked and 110 arrested in 2020, a dramatic spike in aggression against journalists, usually perpetrated by the police. Most of the cases identified by the Press Freedom Tracker related to protests against police brutality. Biden should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to condemn these abuses against press freedom and he should urge his new Attorney General to investigate the police departments responsible for attacks on journalists.
- Restore Network Neutrality. An open and neutral Internet is vital to the free circulation of information and ideas on which democracy depends. Biden has committed to restoring Obama-era network neutrality rules that classified broadband providers as “common carriers”; this classification would give the FCC the legal authority necessary to prevent ISPs like Verizon and AT&T from blocking or tampering with legal online traffic. Biden ought to appoint an FCC chair who shares this commitment. Biden should also push Congress to pass the Save the Internet Act, which would write net neutrality into law and prevent a future Republican-dominated FCC from ever again compromising an open, nondiscriminatory Internet.
- Pass A Bailout for Journalism (with a Public Option). The economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic has utterly devasted local news media. According to one New York Times report, between January and April 2020, some 37,000 news workers were laid off, furloughed or faced pay cuts. By October, more than 60 local newsrooms around the country had closed due to dwindling ad revenues. Alternative weeklies, often a source of hard-hitting local investigative news, are facing “total annihilation”, with several venerable alt-weeklies like Sheppard Express (Milwaukee, WI), The Isthmus (Madison, WI), The Stranger (Seattle, WA), Eugene Weekly (Eugene, OR) and the San Diego Reader (San Diego, CA) suspending publication until further notice. Conditions cry out for a bailout of some kind.
The Democrats succeeded in getting relief funding for local media organizations included in the HEROES Act passed by the House in May, but Republicans in the Senate refuse to consider the bill. If passed the HEROES Act would be a start, but its relief package is trivial compared to what is really needed. Craig Aaron of media reform organization Free Press has called for an emergency bailout of $5 billion to keep news organizations afloat, with $930 million going to federal appropriations for public media over the next two years.
Pennsylvania University professor Victor Pickard goes even further, suggesting that a “public option” is needed to keep independent, adversarial journalism alive. Pickard calculates that just $30 billion a year—less than what the Pentagon spends on certain fighter planes—would be enough to pay for a robust public media system. Biden should strongly consider both Aaron and Pickard’s proposals.
Solutions and policy proposals such as these are rarely discussed in the corporate media or taken seriously by the national Democratic and Republican politicians who enjoy easy access to cable talk shows and the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Yet such proposals are routinely discussed by the independent and alternative press, as Project Censored highlights in its annual list of the most important but underreported news stories of the year; indeed, this year we highlighted Aaron’s and Pickard’s plans for a bailout for journalism as one of the top ten under-reported stories of the year.
We are under no illusions that Biden will act on any of these ideas of his own accord, with the possible exception of the suggestion to restore network neutrality. As always, it will require pressure from grassroots movements and concerned citizens to put these timely and urgent ideas on the agenda of the new administration.