Editor’s Note: Eric Swalwell is a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and a fourth-term Congressman from California’s 15th District. Follow him on Twitter at @EricSwalwell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s time that we turn on the lights at the end of the dark tunnel that President Donald Trump has led us down with his prolonged war on news and democracy.
In sharp contrast to Trump, I appreciate the role of the free press in preserving our democracy, and if elected President, I will ensure that journalists have the access and protections they need to keep the public fully informed on what my administration does.
That begins with restoring the daily White House press briefings. Since the President took office, his White House’s press briefings have become far rarer and shorter than those of earlier administrations – a symptom of this President’s erratic messaging and policies. Trump prefers to give a few sound bites while heading toward Marine One – but that’s no substitute for the substantive give-and-take of a true press conference. In addition to bringing back daily briefings, I will hold at least one presidential press conference per month, plus occasional gaggles and availabilities.
Transparency extends to records as well. The Trump administration had to be sued before it agreed to release certain White House visitor logs. I will make my White House visitor logs and schedule publicly available in a timely way.
And I won’t stop there.
In 2018, Reporters Without Borders dropped the United States’ ranking in its annual World Press Freedom Index by two points to number 45, citing Trump’s bashing of the media. This year, we slipped three more points down to 48th place. “Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection,” the group wrote. I’ll work with Congress to enact a law like my Journalist Protection Act, to make it a federal crime to intentionally physically attack a journalist in an effort to stop him or her from reporting the news.
The Trump administration is also censoring, withholding or claiming it can’t find more records requested under the Freedom of Information Act than ever before. As a result, FOIA lawsuits are also at an all-time high. If elected President, I’ll make sure every executive agency’s FOIA office is fully funded and complies with the law. The request backlog – more than 111,000 at last count – will be processed and eliminated.
And I’ll urge Congress to pass a federal shield law that creates a statutory privilege protecting journalists from having to reveal confidential sources, ensuring they can do their jobs without fear of imprisonment or intimidation. While there is no current bill pending on this matter, the previous Congress introduced the Free Flow of Information Act of 2017. I support the principle of that bill and would like to expand on that moving forward.
Since hitting the campaign trail, Trump has treated news media as both personal and national adversaries, calling the press “the true Enemy of the People” and “a stain on America.” He said it’s “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” and tried to revoke credentials from a CNN journalist for no legitimate reason.
All the while, the White House has peddled disinformation. But special counsel Robert Mueller’s report made undeniable what many already knew: Most of the Russia probe stories that Trump so smugly labeled as “fake news” were anything but, even as the President continued to make misleading statements about the investigation.
Lying, and urging citizens to distrust those reporting the truth, is the bailiwick of despots like Trump’s friends in Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. They wage war on information in order to control it, and in turn, to control and subjugate their people. Our Founding Fathers knew it: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Thomas Jefferson wrote.
I’ve always felt the same way. As a kid, my mom had to roust me out onto my newspaper delivery route because I’d lost track of time while reading the paper myself. As a prosecutor, as a city councilman and as a congressman, I’ve been as open as possible with the press – because I understand how important an informed populace is to all we hold dear.
Trump’s disdain for a free press isn’t fake news – it’s very real and a threat to our democratic institutions. Hugging a flag is easy. A president must embrace the values that the flag embodies.
The American Bar Association’s annual Law Day was Wednesday; its theme was “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” Friday is the United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day. A free press is a cornerstone of America, and America deserves a president who will respect and protect that cornerstone regardless of what coverage he receives.