President Biden will never call the press the "enemy of the people." He won't whine about "nasty" media "witch hunts" or taunt reporters as "fake news." He won't praise political allies if they physically assault journalists on the campaign trail.
That does not mean he is the champion of press freedom he makes himself out to be.
Biden came to office following an administration with uniquely antagonistic rhetoric toward the media. Former President Donald Trump deeply needed press attention, but he also needed to posture as an opponent of the press — which, handily, tended to get him even more press attention. His animosity was frequent and noxious enough that some anticipated Trump-inspired violence or even covert state assassination of journalists.
Biden rejects all this, of course, exactly as you'd expect a Democratic president of his ilk to do. He vehemently condemns assaults on press freedom abroad and lauds reporters' bravery and honesty at length. Journalists "are indispensable to the functioning of democracy," he's said, declaring it "incumbent on all of us to counter ... threats to a free and independent media." Last month, Biden denounced Trump-era Department of Justice subpoenas of journalists' phone and email records, calling the secretive practice "simply, simply wrong" and promising the same would not happen on his watch.
But just as Trump's vicious words belied his more mundane and tangible threats to the press, so do Biden's plaudits. While attention focused on Trump's harsh language, his administration continued a long presidential tradition of spying on members of the media, coercing revelation of reporters' sources, and punishing whistleblowers. Trump continued "the aggressive crackdown on journalists" that is a little-remembered part of former President Barack Obama's legacy, as reporter James Risen (who was targeted by Obama and George W. Bush before him) wrote at The New York Times in 2016:
[The Obama administration] prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists. Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the FBI have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting, and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases. [The New York Times]
This is the exact tradition Biden now prolongs, picking up where Trump left off.
The Biden Justice Department did not immediately stop those Trump-era subpoenas, it turns out. Rather, as Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote Monday, "the department continued to pursue subpoenas for reporters' email logs issued to Google, which operates the New York Times' email systems, and it obtained a gag order compelling a Times attorney to keep silent about the fact that federal authorities were seeking to seize his colleagues' records."
The Biden DOJ "finally back[ed] down in the face of reporting about its conduct," Ryan notes. But it has yet to respond to information requests from the Post, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki "released a statement disavowing White House knowledge of the actions that appear to have continued for several months during Biden's presidency."
Then there's a strange story from USA Today last week. In April, the FBI "demanded the production of records containing IP addresses and other identifying information 'for computers and other electronic devices' that accessed" a USA Today story about a Florida shootout involving FBI agents "during a 35-minute time frame starting at 8:03 p.m. on the day of the shooting."
The FBI withdrew the subpoena after the newspaper fought it in court, arguing it was unconstitutional and a violation of the Biden "Justice Department's guidelines on the 'narrow circumstances' in which the government can subpoena reporters. Those arguments don't seem to have won the day, however. The FBI retreated because it found the person it sought in the reader records "through other means," not because it realized the error in its ways of overstepping First Amendment bounds.
It's early days yet for this administration, and the federal government is a large and unwieldly bureaucracy. It does not pivot on a dime.
Yet if Biden's praise of the press is anything more than a partisan mirror of Trump's attacks, he'll need to effect a pivot on press freedom, and not only when he gets caught or risks a loss in court. Asking congressional Democrats to act on the Post and Times editorial calls for new legislative protections for journalists — not executive orders or departmental policies, which are fairly easily reversed — would be a good place to start.