United States

Report Mid-Year Meeting April 17 - 19, 2024

The protection of journalists' work product, including confidential source information, remains a significant concern, as evidenced by a recent district court order holding journalist Catherine Herridge in contempt for refusing to divulge the identity of a source. While currently, there is no federal shield law that would protect such information, the PRESS Act unanimously passed the House of Representatives in January. The Senate must now approve the bill, which has rejected previous iterations of the legislation.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has recorded fifteen assaults on journalists since October; three of these assaults occurred in the first few months of 2024. This is consistent with the continuing decline in physical attacks on the press since this kind of violence peaked in 2020. In November, a passerby grabbed a Boston reporter from behind while on camera. That same month, a television crew in Missouri was shot with pellet guns while standing on a residential street. In December, two Georgia reporters were held hostage in their marked news vehicle for more than an hour by an armed assailant.

Former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden have secured their parties' nominations for the presidency, setting up a rematch of the 2020 election. During his campaign, Trump repeatedly implied that he would use a second term to retaliate against his perceived opponents. Trump has a long history of expressing animosity towards the press and has called for the government to "come down hard" on those who have criticized him. Kash Patel, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Trump Administration, confirmed that Trump's threats apply not only to political rivals but to the press. In December, on a podcast by Steve Bannon, Patel stated, "We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in the government but in the media." He continued, "Yes, we're going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections — we're going to come after you. Whether it's criminally or civilly, we'll figure that out." In addition, Trump has continued to use the courts to fight against his perceived critics in the media.

In November, the company behind Trump's social media platform Truth Social sued twenty media outlets, including Reuters, Newsweek, and MSNBC, seeking $1.5 billion in damages against those organizations for allegedly miscalculating specific figures in reporting about the company's financial condition. Trump personally has filed several lawsuits against media organizations over the years. He continues to do so. In March, Trump filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News and George Stephanopoulos. The suit was filed in response to an interview Stephanopoulos conducted with Representative Nancy Mace, where he questioned her about her continued support for Trump after he was found liable for rape and defaming the victim. The lawsuit claims these statements were false and made with malice.

President Biden has expressed dissatisfaction with media coverage of his administration. In February, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office sent a letter to the White House Correspondents Association raising concerns about coverage of the special counsel's report on President Biden's handling of classified documents. The letter named several news outlets and urged them to address "significant errors" in framing the findings.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre continues to hold regular press briefings. Biden, however, still draws criticism for being less accessible to the press than his predecessors. He has held an average of eleven news conferences per year; Trump averaged 22 per year, and Barack Obama averaged more than 20 a year. Additionally, Biden declined to participate in a traditional pre-Superbowl interview for the second year in a row. This decision indicates the Biden campaign's strategy to rely more on direct communication with the electorate through social media rather than traditional media.

Several bills have been introduced at the state level to increase access to public records. A package of bills introduced in Michigan would expand the scope of that state's Freedom of Information Act, expedite the process for getting access to public records, and increase penalties for violations of the law. While this legislation is currently stalled in committee, a resolution supporting government transparency was approved in March. A transparency group in Arkansas has faced challenges in trying to incorporate that state's FOIA into the Arkansas constitution. The Arkansas Citizens for Transparency's proposal was rejected by the Attorney General three times. In January, language for the proposed constitutional amendment was finally approved, and the group began collecting signatures so that the issue could appear on the ballot in November.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, eleven journalists have been arrested or detained in the last six months. Many of these arrests occurred during protests. In November 2023, a KJZZ radio reporter was among 26 people arrested at a pro-Palestine demonstration in Tucson, Arizona. The reporter was wearing press credentials and can be heard on video identifying herself as a journalist and explaining to the Sheriff's deputy that she was attempting to walk to her nearby vehicle. A similar arrest occurred in December 2023 when a freelance reporter on assignment for the Daily News was arrested during a pro-Palestine protest and held overnight by the NYPD. The reporter asserts that police officers told her she could not pass by a barricade to get to the demonstration, and when she attempted to step out of the way, she was handcuffed.

While many of the charges related to these incidents have since been dropped, arrests of journalists covering protests remain a significant concern.

On February 29, journalist Catherine Herridge was held in civil contempt by a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., for refusing to comply with a subpoena calling for her to reveal the identity of a confidential source. The subpoena was issued in connection with a series of pieces Herridge wrote while at Fox News about a federal investigation into Chinese American scientist Yanping Chen. Chen was investigated for nearly six years for possible ties to the Chinese military, but no charges were ever brought. In 2018, she sued the FBI and Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security departments under the Privacy Act. In 2022, Chen subpoenaed Herridge, seeking newsgathering materials and Herridge's source's identity. The request for documents was quashed, but the district court ruled that the source's identity was central to Chen's claims and ordered Herridge to testify about the identity of her source. Herridge sat for a deposition but refused to answer questions about the source's identity and was eventually held in contempt. The district court ordered that Herridge be fined $800 daily until she complies with the subpoena. The fine has been stayed for 30 days or until Herridge's pending appeal to the U.S.

Last month, a judge granted asylum to Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto and his son Oscar following a 15-year immigration battle. Gutiérrez Soto fled Mexico in 2008 after receiving death threats related to his investigation into military corruption. The father and son entered the United States legally, living and working in Texas and New Mexico as they awaited a ruling on their claim for asylum. However, in 2017, an immigration judge rejected their asylum claims and ordered deportation. That decision was reversed on appeal, reinstated, and eventually overturned last fall. The resolution of this case was aided by a FOIA lawsuit brought in 2018. Attorneys for the Reporters Committee and Ballard Spahr sued the Department of Homeland Security and ICE after ICE refused to respond to requests for records and communications related to Gutiérrez. In January, the parties agreed that the FOIA suit would be dropped if the government did not oppose asylum for Gutiérrez.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich remains detained in Russia, where he was arrested last March after being falsely accused of espionage. As the first anniversary of Gershkovich's detainment approaches, efforts to bring him home continue. Gershkovich's latest appeal was denied on February 20, 2024; he will remain behind bars until at least March 30, 2024. If Gershkovich is convicted, he faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years.