“I think you’ll be happy, I think you’ll be happy.”
That was President-elect Donald Trump, talking to a group of New York Times journalists today about his views on the First Amendment.
The real issue, of course, is not whether journalists are happy. (We’re not exactly a popular bunch with most Americans.) The issue is whether the next president and his administration plan to remain faithful to the Constitution.
And there are reasons to worry. During the campaign, Trump referred to reporters covering him as “scum” and said he wanted to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue media companies for unfavorable coverage.
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He is also part of a small group of wealthy Americans who have tried to intimidate journalists with lawsuits, as my colleague Emily Bazelon wrote for The Times Magazine. “Once installed in the White House, Trump will have a wider array of tools at his disposal,” Bazelon wrote, “and his record suggests that, more than his predecessors, he will try to use the press – and also control and subdue it.”
This is all alarming. No matter how good or bad any piece of journalism or publication is, a free press is crucial to a functioning democracy. “Our liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson said, “cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Jefferson isn’t the only famous populist from an agrarian state who has eloquently made the case for a free press. There is another – Mike Pence.
In a bit of partly forgotten history, Pence – now vice president-elect, then a member of Congress – co-sponsored a bill about a decade ago to create a so-called shield law. Had it passed, the bill would have protected journalists from being dragged into court to reveal anonymous sources. Pence decided to push the bill after reading a Times editorial criticizing the jailing of Judith Miller, a former Times reporter, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Pence was clear he often didn’t like what he read in the media. He bemoaned “bad news bias.” But he also understood there were more important principles.
“Our founders did not put the freedom of the press in the First Amendment because they got good press – quite the opposite was true,” he said. Like them, though, he believed in “the public good that a free and independent press represents” because it allowed citizens to “make informed decisions,” he said.
It’s not clear how much of a free-press defender Pence remains. Either way, vice presidents generally yield to presidents. But he does seem to have instincts his boss would benefit from hearing.
I thought of his shield-law history last weekend, after the incident when Pence was booed by the crowd at “Hamilton.” Trump, on Twitter, demanded a cast apology. Pence, in the moment, had a different reaction: He turned to his daughter in the theater and said, “That’s what freedom sounds like.”