We celebrated "free speech" this week — just as it's slipping away from us

Joe Biden says the right things. But outrage around the SCOTUS leak makes clear how fragile press freedom really is

By Brian Karem


Published May 5, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents Association gala at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, on April 30, 2022. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents Association gala at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, on April 30, 2022. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

Welcome to Kentucky Derby week.

In celebration, after you've had a mint julep and dropped acid in memory of Hunter S. Thompson, come join us by the fireside and let's talk about free speech — before the eighth race claims all our money.

Last Saturday, President Biden paid tribute to journalists at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Comedian Trevor Noah cheered the efforts of the fourth estate while WHCA president Steve Portnoy recognized fallen journalists from around the world who died trying to bring the world the news from Vladimir Putin's chosen war in Ukraine.

The dinner was quite the event. It celebrated journalism instead of calling us "fake news" and featured a president who is willing to sit and take a few jokes at his expense instead of one who refused to attend and instead hid out in the White House and called us "the enemy of the people." Since the entire purpose of the night is to raise money for a scholarship fund for future journalists, it was nice to have a president who understands the need to educate our youth.

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But what about free speech? Sure, the night celebrated it — but it almost feels like we're celebrating the passing of a relative we loved from afar. You know, the relative everyone in the family says they love, but no one really wants around — which, oddly enough, is how many treated Hunter S. Thompson while he was still alive. Not that he ever appeared to give a shit about that.

Honoring "free speech" can feel like celebrating the passage of that relative the family all claimed to love, but no one really wanted around.

For many, the mere mention of free speech without saying the words "fake news" is such an improvement that the Biden administration is often applauded just for holding briefings at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House on a regular basis. A video produced by the administration for World Press Freedom Day earlier this week, proudly tweeted out by press secretary Jen Psaki, praises itself for doing just that. 

Sure, after Donald Trump it's nice to have regular and reasonable briefings. But Trump's administration set a low bar, and no one should take too much pride in crawling over it. Yet that's the central point of the video. 

It features walking and talking standups from three press secretaries. It looks like an airline video of flight attendants explaining how seat belts work. 

Biden has briefings. Wow.

There are serious issues regarding access to the president and the White House, and the administration's horrible track record of returning phone calls or emails to anyone outside the dozen or so reporters who make up the protective pool around the president. And of course there are questions about control, contrivance and avoidance that accompany any administration. Biden and his administration often use Fox News as a foil, and happily point out Fox News reporters in the room. The Murdoch network knows this game and plays it well, having been denigrated for years by the Obama administration and others before Trump came along and the whole operation morphed into freakish Trump cheerleaders, in an incestuous relationship that culminated in Sean Hannity taking orders from Trump's team during the 2021 insurrection.

Biden's outward display of support for free speech cannot hide his administration's wish to control how the press covers him. It's not particularly wrong or surprising that he tries to put his best foot forward. As Sam Donaldson once told me, it's the job of the White House communications team to do so, and it's our job to hold the administration accountable for its actions.

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That's the wild card. Today, more often than not, we fail to do our jobs, and the American people know that. That's why Biden could joke this weekend about how happy he was to be in a room full of people whose favorability ratings are lower than his.

As you sip that julep, contemplate that "funny because it's true" state of affairs, and what is being done to combat it. That would be nothing. Nothing is being done about it. Certainly none of the multinational media corporations who bought up most of the tables at the WHCA dinner have done anything to change the status quo — they're doing OK.

To be fair, the responsibility to clean up the problem doesn't rest on Biden's shoulders alone. He's inherited a large, often misunderstood problem that every president since Reagan has made worse. Even the Democrats' beloved Barack Obama: He claimed to support journalism, but used the Espionage Act seven times to go after whistleblowers and leakers. Biden hasn't done that. 

But Biden hasn't done a hell of a lot to support us either. Jamal Khashoggi wasn't even mentioned on Saturday during the WHCA dinner. He was a Washington Post columnist who was murdered, dismembered and cremated in Istanbul, by a team of killers connected to the Saudi government. We've done nothing about it, and nothing to dissuade future murders of reporters. When Biden says he'll stand up for us, who can take that seriously? We all know that if the death of a journalist is tied to a powerful potentate, our government will do nothing. The rest of the world gets the message.

Jamal Khashoggi wasn't even mentioned at the correspondents' dinner. We've done nothing about his murder, and nothing to dissuade future despots from following suit.

As I say, you can't just blame the president. Congress could pass a shield law protecting reporters from having to give up confidential sources. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., got his latest attempt at a shield law out of committee, but it's doubtful it will ever see a floor vote. If it does, it's even more doubtful it will pass the Senate. Everyone from Jim Jordan to Mike Pence to the most powerful Democrats have said they support the measure, which would immensely enhance a reporter's ability to gather information. Yet it still hasn't passed.

Meanwhile, large corporations continue to control the press. Ben Bagdikian, the former dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley and former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, famously said that if you want a greater diversity of reporting, you need a greater diversity of ownership. But no one in Congress and no one at the White House has suggested using existing antitrust laws to break up the robber-baron media monopolies. When I bring that issue up before lawmakers, they look at me as if I'm trying to steal their wallet.

There is another step that could be taken. Sam Donaldson, who appeared with me and CNN's Jim Acosta in a panel at the National Press Club last week, argues  for the reinstatement of the FCC's fairness doctrine, as a way to guarantee more accountability in the press. His voice is among the multitude of owners, reporters, editors, anchors and others in journalism recommending such a move.

Nothing has been done there either. 

This isn't an issue untethered to reality.

The need for a stronger First Amendment was driven home this week by events at the Supreme Court. It was first reported, and later confirmed by Chief Justice John Roberts, that the court has already drafted an opinion, ("authentic" but not "final," Roberts explained) that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which gave the country legal abortion and recognized a woman's right to choose. 

Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, called the release of this draft opinion "illegal." He wants to prosecute whoever leaked it.

Roberts has acknowledged the draft's authenticity, but hasn't apologized for it. He apparently agrees with Donalds, and immediately ordered an investigation into the leak. That's called shooting the messenger. It's a deflection from the real issue. That makes you wonder if Donalds and Roberts are the type of people who'd show up at a comedy show just to attack the comedian. 

Roe v. Wade was one of the strongest foundations of bipartisan cooperation — but what worries Chief Justice Roberts is who told us that the Supreme Court is about to screw us.

More than 70 percent of the American public supports Roe v. Wade. It was one of the strongest foundations of bipartisan cooperation, and what worries the chief justice is who told us that the Supreme Court is about to screw us. He wanted to keep that quiet until it was a done deal.

That's why what we do is important — and why those who give us valuable information, and those who report it, need to be protected.

Of course Roberts wants you to worry about the leaker. That way, he doesn't have to deal with fallout from the fact that the Supreme Court has apparently seized an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade when it didn't have to. 

Without the efforts of reporters, the world wouldn't know what the Supreme Court planned to do until it was done. And mind you, while knowing ahead of time may change nothing about the court's decision,, forewarned is indeed forearmed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is among those already protesting with crowds outside the Supreme Court. 

As you celebrate the Run for the Roses this weekend (like every true American should) and drink that mint julep (perhaps followed by another), remember that the free press helps ensure everyone's freedom.

The people have a right to know. 

The next time the Biden administration wants to demonstrate its commitment to that cause, I hope it produces a video dealing with a shield law, whistleblowers, the fairness doctrine and media monopolies. Those are the real issues that threaten free speech. 

Words and platitudes are great — at award dinners. Having comedians support us is just fine (after all, it's an exercise of self-defense for the comedians). But today's media not only reflects the division we see in our country, it obviously shoulders some  responsibility for it. 

President Biden, we need your help.

In memory of one of the wildest men I've ever personally known to exercise his free speech, I tip my mint julep in honor of Hunter S. Thompson and get on my knees and pray —  we don't get fooled again. (With a tip of my wildest Derby hat to Pete Townshend.)

Read more from Brian Karem on the Biden White House:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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