Dangerous Precedent for Press
A little more than a week ago, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to fundraisers in two battleground-state cities, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Neither stop included the White House press corps; requests by local media to cover the events were denied by the vice president’s press office. The Democratic National Committee arranged the events for the Obama Victory Fund.
A number of seasoned political reporters and former White House press-office staffers consider that lack of coverage a dangerous precedent.
"It would behoove the Obama administration to keep its promise of transparency even with fundraisers," agrees Jeff Brauer, a political history professor at Keystone College. "The United States is a democracy, after all."
Having press coverage of fundraising events that feature the president or vice president matters for at least two reasons, Brauer explains.
"One, large amounts of taxpayer dollars are being used for personal security at such events. As with all tax dollars, they should be spent with accountability.
"Two, it is important for the public to know what the president and vice president are saying to donors. Is it the same message they are saying to the electorate at large?"
Such knowledge helps citizens judge officeholders’ authenticity and integrity.
The White House press office earlier this month rejected a request by the Boston Herald, a conservative-leaning newspaper, to cover an Obama fundraiser. The press office’s publicly "outed" e-mail said so-called pool reporters are chosen based on whether they cover the news "fairly."
Several former and current White House correspondents see presidents choosing who covers them as a nightmare scenario. The correspondents also are agitated by Biden’s refusal to be covered by local media, even if that means reporters cooling their heels outside an invitation-only fundraiser.
"What if something happened to him?" is the question they raise.
All administrations want to bask in a warm glow. All members of the press want to protect democracy by keeping the public informed and holding administrations accountable.
Throughout American history, presidents — and politicians in general — have had tenuous press relations.
President John Adams, a Federalist, went so far as to sign the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to publish "scandalous and malicious" writings about government officials.
"Even before signing this act, Adams had Ben Franklin’s grandson, editor of a Republican newspaper, arrested on libel charges for writing accusations of incompetence against George Washington and of nepotism against Adams himself," recalls Brauer.
Franklin’s grandson died in prison, awaiting trial.
The Sedition Act expired the day before Adams’ presidency ended; his successor, Thomas Jefferson, pardoned those convicted under it.
Not until 1964, in New York Times v. Sullivan, did the U.S. Supreme Court resolve the constitutional issues surrounding press freedom and public figures. That case established the very high standard of proving "actual malice" for libel and defamation of those in the public eye.
Late last month, the White House press office threatened to ban a San Francisco Chronicle reporter from pool reporting after she used a cell phone to record protesters heckling President Obama at a fundraiser.
"The administration must simply get used to the idea that some media outlets are going to be critical, and that is healthy in a democracy," says Brauer.
John Adams did not learn that lesson. And it is no coincidence that he was the first one-term president and that his laws, such as the Sedition Act, were the death knell for his Federalist Party.
Days before Biden was sworn in as vice president in 2009, he promised to be more open than his predecessor, Dick Cheney.
Yet his official schedule more often than not lists meetings as "closed press" or shows no public events at all.
You may not care what any vice president does. You may not care for the press, either. But you should care deeply about the fundamental right and obligation of the press to cover the vice president and president.
Vice President Biden’s comings and goings should not occur in an unobserved world that, to paraphrase Biden himself, is a big bleeping deal.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]
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