Fast forward to Friday, when—to the consternation of many journalists—Biden’s Justice Department defended the Trump-era move against the Post as, in Barrett’s words, “an investigative step of last resort that was not taken lightly.” We do not yet know of any instances of Biden himself going after journalists’ sources. But he hasn’t pledged explicitly that he won’t, either—and, in its first weeks in office, his administration continued the Trump-era push to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, under the Espionage Act, drawing blowback from a coalition of press-freedom groups who say that the charges against Assange threaten to criminalize various routine acts of journalism. As the Freedom of the Press Foundation noted in January, after Biden was inaugurated, he had “already been lauded for striking a new tone” with the press. “But refraining from insulting and delegitimizing reporters on a daily basis is an incredibly low bar. It is by the actions of its Justice Department and intelligence agencies that the Biden administration should ultimately be judged.”
When Joe Biden becomes president of the United States on January 20, a historic opportunity awaits him to demonstrate America’s commitment to the First Amendment. He can, in a stroke, reverse four years of White House persecution of journalism by withdrawing the application to extradite Julian Assange from Britain to the U.S. This would be in line with the departures from Trump policies Biden is proposing on health care, environmental protection, and tax fairness. Assange’s liberty represents the liberty of all journalists and publishers whose job is to expose government and corporate criminality without fear of prosecution. We need and deserve to be protected against government control of the press.
Biden’s recent record with the press is far from perfect. Last year, after his late-ish entry into the Democratic primary, he largely skirted the national media—an apparent bid to limit his potential to commit “gaffes” (long a staple of Biden coverage) and leave intact voters’ memories of Cool Uncle Joe, Obama’s vice president—though he did give interviews to local news stations. As Biden’s campaign flailed in Iowa and New Hampshire, he opened up more, but once he’d locked up the nomination, the pandemic hit, and he mostly stayed in his basement—a perfectly understandable public-health precaution that nonetheless didn’t come with generous workarounds for press access; at one point, Biden went three months without holding a news conference, virtual or otherwise.
This is the season for look-aheads: What kind of policy and personnel choices should we expect to see from the executive branch following Joe Biden’s inauguration in January? Here at the Reporters Committee, we’re beginning to take stock of what a new administration might mean for technology, press rights and the First Amendment. What follows is a brief, inexhaustive list of what the Technology and Press Freedom Project will be watching.