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OPINION

Biden must protect, not undermine, a free press

Of course, the press must be fair in covering the GOP’s bogus impeachment probe of Biden. But the White House giving the press marching orders isn’t just a bad look, it’s a constitutionally offensive one.

President Biden turned from the lectern to return to the Oval Office after speaking about the August jobs report at the White House on Sept. 1.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Democrats have quite a knack for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, or at the very least plotting a victory lap route that unnecessarily veers into dangerous territory. The Biden White House’s warning to media outlets to do more to debunk the basis for Republicans’ bogus bid to investigate President Biden for impeachment is a great example.

Sure, the memo is getting plaudits from some Biden supporters and others who are understandably weary of the tireless disinformation campaign Donald Trump and his acolytes have been waging for years. I get it. I too have long been frustrated at the willingness of some news outlets to let the relentless string of lies go unchecked, whether out of laziness or bias.

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And it’s also perfectly fine — in fact, necessary — for the White House to point out the meritless, politically vile, and completely counterproductive nature of the Biden impeachment effort being pushed by Trump and the House Republicans who do his bidding. The 14-page dossier attached to the White House memo is actually a well-crafted document clearly and succinctly debunking each of the Republicans’ bogus claims about Biden being tied to any wrongdoing in connection with his son Hunter Biden’s allegedly shady dealings. And the memo does a great job of pointing out that even among Republican lawmakers, there is far from sufficient support to initiate an impeachment trial, far less get a conviction. Biden and those in his White House should push back on this GOP gambit with these very facts.

But the White House’s memo goes fundamentally awry by then undermining one of the most crucial pillars of a well-functioning democracy: a free and independent press.

It’s one thing to give guidance and information to members of the media, as the White House Press Office regularly does, or for this kind of memo to come from Biden’s campaign. It’s another thing for the White House to give the press what look like marching orders. Mr. President, neither I nor my colleagues work for you. And even the appearance that we do, or that you think we should, offends not only our profession but the spirit — if not the very letter — of the Constitution, which grants only one nongovernmental industry express protection: the press.

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There is a reason for this. The drafters of the First Amendment were keenly aware that an independent press, free from the influence, threats, or pressure campaigns from governmental officials, is necessary for a well-functioning democracy.

But by blurring this line, Biden’s White House places the press in an impossible position: either news organizations will look like they are following the White House’s directive when they diligently, fairly, and with proper context report on the impeachment probe, or they will appear to be adversaries if they engage in coverage that the White House doesn’t like. Either way, the very peddlers of the misinformation will have a field day painting the media as mere White House mouthpieces, and the losers will be members of the public who will have an even harder time deciding who to trust.

Also, the White House undermines its own argument that the press needs to do better. Both the memo and dossier cite not only congressional testimony and government documents as evidence that the Republicans’ impeachment probe is baseless, but also a plethora of media reports — including those from the very news outlets to which the memo was sent. So, is the press doing its job or isn’t it? One of my biggest pet peeves is the baseless claim that “the media isn’t doing a good job of covering” whatever topic, followed by a link to a news story about that very topic. That is essentially what the White House is doing here.

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It also, intentionally or not, opens the door to further attacks on the media or, even worse, sets the press up as an easy scapegoat for any undesired outcome of the impeachment probe. Even if there is no chance that this investigation will lead to an actual impeachment — it won’t — any negative outcome, like poor polling numbers, will be blamed on press coverage as opposed to the White House’s own response. And that, in turn, will encourage more attacks on members of the media. We need our leaders to stand up for press freedoms, particularly after Trump’s dangerous declaration that the press is the “enemy of the people.”

It should go without saying, but I will make it plain: There is absolutely no equivalence between the memo to news organizations from Biden’s White House and the incessant attacks Trump launched against the media, nor the Trump-era transformation of some right-leaning news organizations to the closest thing America has ever had to state-run media. But a bad look is a bad look, especially when it is constitutionally unfashionable. And Mr. President, the Constitution makes clear that it is not up to you to be our editor.

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Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.