A new administration in Washington brings the chance for a fresh start but also for a return to core values — values like respect for a free and independent press, supported by an open and transparent government.
For four years the news media has been berated by an administration that declared anyone with a press badge the “enemy of the people,” and their work product “fake news.” The effort to disparage one of the pillars of democratic government took its toll on public discourse, sending too many people to the dark corners of social media in search of their own versions of “truth.”
At home and abroad, the once unfettered access to government — to its officials and its corridors of power — was a hallmark of American press freedom and a beacon to fellow journalists around the world. Today it’s time to renew that promise not just in words but also in deeds.
From the podium of the White House briefing room Wednesday, Biden administration press secretary Jen Psaki declared, “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and the role that all of you play. . . . There will be moments when we disagree . . . but we share a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”
It was a good place to start.
And before the day was out, President Biden demanded and received the resignation of Michael Pack, the Donald Trump sycophant who headed the Voice of America and its related overseas agencies. During his eight-month tenure Pack attempted to destroy nearly eight decades of nonpartisan, independent reporting to countries around the globe.
He didn’t succeed, and his departure was greeted with much relief by staffers who had survived Pack’s efforts to “cleanse” the organization.
Again, Pack’s departure is a good start.
But there is so much more to do.
Psaki has vowed to restore daily briefings. But not all wisdom comes from behind the White House podium. There is no substitute for information coming directly from those involved in making and implementing policy, and so the Society for Professional Journalists, in a letter to Biden, pleaded for lifting a gag order that dates back to the Obama administration.
SPJ asked the administration to “end restrictions on employees in federal offices and agencies that prohibit speaking to the press without notification or oversight by authorities, often by using public information officers as gatekeepers.”
Ever wonder why news stories quote anonymous officials “who were not authorized to speak?” Well, that’s why.
“Journalists understand that some information is legitimately confidential,” the letter noted. “That does not justify silencing staff on matters of public business.”
Fostering transparency by allowing access to policy makers and information is at the very heart of allowing the press the freedom it requires to do its job — to keep the public informed.
Freedom of Information Act requests — how many need to be filed (because information wasn’t promptly provided) and how expeditiously they are handled — are also measures of that transparency.
It should never take the next step — a lawsuit — to compel disclosure. But during the Trump administration, a total of 386 FOIA cases were filed by the media — more than were filed during the previous 16 years of the Bush and Obama administrations combined.
Among the FOIA requests still pending before a federal court — this one filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, but particularly dear to the hearts of journalists — is for the CIA’s report on the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi. During her confirmation hearing, Biden’s pick to be director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, pledged to declassify the report, which reportedly implicates Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Over-classification by a host of federal agencies has been a persistent problem for journalists seeking the truth and striving to make government more accountable.
It’s not just the future of American journalism that is at stake, but also the role this nation has always played as a beacon for press freedom in places where that remains on much shakier ground.
“The robust, pluralistic, and independent domestic media, protected by the First Amendment and a political culture that tolerated and even encouraged aggressive reporting, has been the envy of journalists everywhere,” wrote the Committee to Protect Journalists in a recent policy proposal sent to the Biden administration. “US-based media report news not just for Americans, but for the entire world.”
The organization also proposed at least a short-term presidential envoy for press freedom “until the State Department resumes the capacity to play its historic role” as a defender of press freedoms on a global scale.
Through four long and contentious years, journalists labored under difficult circumstances to keep the American public informed. If the Biden administration strives to make that relationship less contentious, then good for them. But it is the nature of journalists and the job of journalists to continue to push the envelope — to press for better access, for more transparency — no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
That role doesn’t change. And the public is better for that effort.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.