President Joe Biden should make press freedom and sustainability a core part of his promised democracy summit.

This is especially needed after revelations that his administration continued Trump-era efforts to snoop on reporters, secretly gathering New York Times reporter phone records and seeking emails.

The FBI also subpoenaed USA Today in April to obtain identities of people who read a story online.

Biden condemned the Department of Justice efforts to obtain reporter records, saying it’s “simply, simply wrong.” Ongoing pursuits were dropped, as was the FBI subpoena.

But Biden remains under pressure to permanently strengthen press protections, by improving Obama-era DOJ policies that fell short.

Biden should also help advance bipartisan efforts in Congress to sustain local news organizations, which are becoming extinct in much of the country. Other democracies are facing the same journalism crisis and some are moving faster and more boldly to save press systems necessary for self-government.


The White House should do both of these things now, so they can be highlighted at the democracy summit.

Timing and details are still being worked out but Biden promised a major gathering to strengthen democratic institutions and forge a common agenda. A preview seems to be happening this week, as Biden emphasizes democracy and renewing alliances during his Europe trip.

It’s all good as long as the conversation includes ways to preserve a free press.

Democratic institutions won’t last if local news outlets fade away, leaving voters and communities adrift and reliant on websites rife with falsehoods, manipulation and divisive messaging.

I floated my suggestion, that press freedom and sustenance be on the summit agenda, past Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar who is now president of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for democracy.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “Information is the lifeblood of a democracy, and quality information with integrity with responsible journalism and free open media is essential to democracy.”


Biden pledged to hold the summit during his first year in office but it’s reportedly slipping toward 2022. Mitchell said discussions are happening about how to structure the event and there’s a desire to hold it in person, which favors waiting to be sure it’s safe.

“There’s a consensus forming that they need to get it done right,” even if that pushes the schedule back, he said.

Biden’s administration has been responsive to press-freedom concerns, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which in November urged him to restore U.S. leadership on the issue.

While Biden hasn’t yet given the major speech on press freedom that CPJ requested, he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken “have spoken consistently about the importance of the free press, both domestically and internationally, including on World Press Freedom Day,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna stated via email.

This is urgent. The number of journalists jailed reached a new high last year as authoritarians cracked down and “took cover in anti-press rhetoric from the United States,” the CPJ reported in December.

As for the secret record grabs, the CPJ is “heartened” that Biden and the DOJ said they won’t use them again against reporters but “it is imperative that these words are matched with action,” de la Serna said.


So while Biden deserves heat for mistakes, the test is how they are addressed and corrected by our government. The same goes for election challenges and human-rights problems.

“Democracy is never perfect, there are challenges everywhere, we have our own challenges in the U.S. — they are obvious for everyone to see,” Mitchell said.

The summit is “more about affirming what’s right about democracy, and being humble about the challenges to democracy, showing solidarity with other democracies around the world,” he said.

That humility should include a willingness to emulate successful programs in other countries, such as an Australian media policy that’s on track to help 100% of its serious news organizations more fairly negotiate content usage deals with Google and Facebook.

Social media will doubtless be part of the summit conversation because it has harmed democracy. But organizers should avoid lumping “media” conversations together, so protecting press freedoms and sustaining journalism aren’t subsumed by the endless challenge of improving dominant digital platforms.

Besides, we can’t eliminate propaganda. But we can mitigate it with strong systems of public education and local news. They are the first and second shots needed to vaccinate against misinformation.


Mitchell said anti-corruption is likely to be a major theme at the summit. That’s another reason to emphasize press freedom and sustaining news organizations, because they are needed to expose corruption, hold officials accountable and keep voters informed.

Confabs can be more show than substance. But I think the summit is good idea to broaden the pro-democracy message and further restore U.S. leadership.

I suppose we should cut Biden some slack for delaying this campaign promise, while he battles the pandemic and tries to keep recovery on track.

That also gives Biden time to strengthen reporter protections and help preserve journalism jobs, so he has a better story to tell when the summit focuses on press freedom and sustainability.