Joe Biden Stiff-Arms the Press

Posted: May 29, 2011 12:01 AM
Joe Biden Stiff-Arms the Press

A little more than a week ago, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to fund-raisers in two battleground-state cities, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Neither stop included the White House press corps; requests by local media to cover the events were denied by the vice president’s press office. The Democratic National Committee arranged all of the events for the Obama Victory Fund.

A number of seasoned political reporters and former White House press-office staffers consider that lack of press coverage to be a dangerous precedent.

“It would behoove the Obama administration to keep its promise of transparency even with fund-raisers,” agrees Jeff Brauer, a political history professor at Keystone College. “The United States is a democracy, after all.”

Having press coverage of fund-raising events with the president or vice president matters for at least two reasons, Brauer explains:

“One, large amounts of taxpayer dollars are being used for personal security at such events. As with all tax dollars, they should be spent with accountability.

“Two, it is important for the public to know what the president and vice president are saying to donors. Is it the same message they are saying to the electorate at-large?”

Such knowledge helps citizens to judge the authenticity and integrity of officeholders.

The White House press office earlier this month rejected a request by the Boston Herald, a conservative-leaning newspaper, to cover an Obama fundraiser. Its publicly-outed e-mail said so-called pool reporters are chosen based on whether they cover the news “fairly.”

Several former and current White House correspondents see a nightmare scenario in presidents choosing who covers them. The correspondents also are agitated by Biden’s refusal to be covered by local press, even if that means having reporters cool their heels outside an invitation-only fund-raiser.

“What if something happened to him?” is the question they raise.

All administrations want to be enshrined in a warm glow. All members of the press want to protect democracy by keeping the public informed and holding administrations accountable.

Throughout American history, presidents and politicians in general have had tenuous relations with the press.

President John Adams, a Federalist, went so far as to sign the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to publish “scandalous and malicious” writings about government officials.

“Even before signing this act, Adams had Ben Franklin’s grandson, editor of a Republican newspaper, arrested on libel charges for writing accusations of incompetence against George Washington and of nepotism against Adams himself,” recalls Keystone College’s Brauer.

The editor died in prison, awaiting trial.

The Sedition Act expired the day before Adams’ presidency ended; his successor, Thomas Jefferson, pardoned those convicted under the act.

Not until 1964, in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, did the U.S. Supreme Court resolve the constitutional issues surrounding press freedom and public figures. That case established the very high burden-of-proof of “actual malice” for libel and defamation of those in the public eye.

Late last month, the White House press office threatened to ban a San Francisco Chronicle reporter from White House pool reporting after she used a cell phone to record protesters heckling President Obama at a fund-raiser.

“The administration must simply get used to the idea that some media outlets are going to be critical, and that is healthy in a democracy,” says Brauer.

John Adams did not learn that lesson. And it is no coincidence that he was the first one-term president and that his laws, such as the Sedition Act, were the death knell of his Federalist Party.

Days before Joe Biden was sworn into office in 2009, he promised to be more open than his predecessor, Dick Cheney.

Yet, more often than not, his official schedule lists meeting as “closed press” or shows no public events as being scheduled.

You may not care what any vice president does, and you may not care for the press, either – but you should care deeply about the fundamental right and obligation of the press to cover the vice president and the president.

The comings and goings of Vice President Biden should not occur in an unobserved world that, to paraphrase Biden himself, is a big bleeping deal.