In America, the press is referred to as the Fourth Estate, serving as “an additional check on the power of the government and as a way to raise public awareness of issues of national importance.” Because of the nature of the job, every president in U.S. history has had a relationship with the press. Governing the nation would become much more challenging if a president could only communicate with those within earshot. Every election cycle, as we vote for a candidate, we also vote for that candidate’s views on freedom of the press. For this reason, it is essential that we educate ourselves about candidates’ views on this crucial component of the First Amendment. This article is designed to serve as a starting point to educate people about the sentiments that the 2020 Presidential candidates have expressed or implicitly demonstrated about freedom of the press. We also strongly encourage readers to do their own research on the topic.
Joseph R. Biden
During this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, Vice President Biden issued a heartening statement recognizing “the vital importance of journalism to upholding free and open democracies, both here at home and around the world.” He went on to acknowledge the sacrifices of journalists, many of whom have put their safety or lives on the line to fulfill their duty. It took a bit of tactical turn as he denounced President Trump’s attacks on journalism, citing his dangerous endorsement of the term “fake news” and his insistence that the press is the “enemy of the people.”
In contrast, Biden made the following promise: “As President, I will restore a relationship with the independent press that is grounded in mutual respect, even — and especially when — they critique policies or positions of my administration. In a Biden White House, there will be no bullying of the media from the press room podium or by tweet. We will have regular, fact-based briefings across my Administration’s major departments and agencies. We must return to civility and transparency in America’s civic discourse.”
Vice President Biden has also been known to share the importance of a free press with audiences in other countries. For example, in December 2013 Biden visited China and challenged the curtailed freedom of the press he witnessed during his time there. Speaking of the experience, he said, “Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences.” He shared these concerns with President Xi Jinping before leaving the country.
However, Biden’s relationship with the press isn’t all sunshine and roses. He has repeatedly been criticized for not taking question from the press, and Fox News reports that he “previously faced scrutiny for not holding a press conference in roughly a 90-day timespan.” Of the questions he does take, most are deemed “softballs” by reporters. He faced similar criticism in June 2020 during visit to Lancaster Pennsylvania, where he met with local leaders and families. While national media were able to enter the events hosted by his campaign, local media outlets were denied access on the grounds of “space restrictions.” LancasterOnline issued the following statement in response: “By shutting LNP | LancasterOnline out of an important community health discussion held here Thursday, the Biden campaign sent the wrong message about the importance of local newspaper journalism to the very communities it is trying to reach during the presidential campaign.”
In January 2020, Biden called for the revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which serves as a legal shield for online platforms who host or publish user-generated content. It allows these platforms to avoid being held liable for what third parties say on their sites. Free Press Action reports on Biden’s insistence that “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms,” citing their status beyond an Internet company and claiming that they are propagating falsehoods as reasons for his proposal. The editors at Free Press Action suggest that Biden did not fully understand the implications of his statement at the time it was made, explaining , “The current system allows internet companies to set their own standards and policies regarding the kinds of content on their sites. It also helps the companies fight hate speech and misinformation by giving them the legal shield to institute those standards as they see fit.” In our digital age where a free press functions primarily through online content, the status of Section 230 is a central issue.
Another resource that is useful for evaluating candidates’ relationships with the press is a voter guide provided by Free Press Action. You can access the guide here.