Gene Policinski. Photo courtesy Freedom Forum
By GENE POLICINSKI
Just how free should a free press be to report on the illness and condition of a sitting president during a national health emergency?
And how free are we to publicly offer our thoughts on the matter?
Both questions have the same legal answer: The First Amendment places no limits on what journalists, bloggers or others might report, and what we might say or speculate about the health of the president.
So, whats left are the First Amendment-ish concerns for reporters from longstanding national security concerns to a possible zone of personal privacy.
And given our fractured, polarized and politically divided society, the rise of social media puts all of us in that kind of -ish situation balancing our right to speak out in any way we choose against the social norms we should consider and the fact that theres no First Amendment insulation for us from the reaction to what we say.
The news that President Trump was infected with the COVID-19 virus came first in his own tweet, not through the news media, just after midnight on Oct. 2. Within minutes, news organizations relayed that dramatic news. Social media began firing up, with comments, forecasts and to put it gently sharp examples of the nations political divide.
To top it all off, a whirlwind of announcements, reports and commentary some contradictory on Trumps illness, brief hospitalization and now his ongoing treatment at the White House is unfolding in the midst of the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign.
For the record, U.S. history offers any number of examples of non-disclosure, image manipulation, complaints about White House transparency and press coverage of presidential health and public debate over the public comments about it all.
AfterPresident James Garfieldwas shot in 1881 at a Washington D.C., railroad station, official statements reported his condition as good or stable despite the reality that he suffered for two months from a bullet that could not be removed, before dying. With the bulletins distributed nationwide by telegraph, published in the nations newspapers and followed closely by the public, the story of Garfields fight to survive could be considered Americas first live media event, historianRobert Mitchellwrites inThe Washington Post.
President Woodrow Wilsoncollapsed from exhaustion in 1919 during a national speaking tour, and we now know he suffered a stroke a month later that left him partially paralyzed. Americans didnt learn even basic facts about Wilsons health until he left office.
Not only were there no White House announcements, some historians now dub his wife Edith as the first female president given the 17-month stint in which she consulted with him on virtually all presidential business and screened all contacts and correspondence.
As USA TODAY noted in a story this week, in 1944 a similar scene played out whenPresident Franklin Delano Rooseveltwas diagnosed with acute congestive heart failurethat forced him into seclusion for months. The report noted that the country was in the midst of World War II and the U.S. military was in the final stages of preparing for the D-Day invasion that opened the second front in the war.
Similar national security concerns have been raised about press reports of the details on Trumps condition. Would terrorists or hostile nations seek advantage or perhaps plan an attack in the U.S. or abroad knowing the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces remained on the job even as we learned from journalists that he was hospitalized, or facing medication and treatment for high fever and low blood oxygen levels that could have reduced his ability to converse or process information?
There are two unique circumstances with Trumps illness that werent present even as recently as when President Ronald Reagan was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, or underwent colon surgery: A global, instantaneous, 24/7 news environment, coupled with todays pervasive social media.
Beyond the national security concerns, are there some health matters that should remain private and not placed openly before the planet either out of personal consideration or to avoid becoming distorted as election-year fodder?
And there is the often-harsh tenor and frequently unsourced/unverified content of social media. Even a brief sampling showed posts ranging from conservative speakers making unsupported claims that journalists were hoping Trump would die, to Trump opponents posting images comparing Trumps balcony salute as he returned from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to similar poses struck by dictators such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Juan Peron. To be fair, there also were great numbers of well wishes, too.
Again, while the First Amendment save for actual physical threats protects what we could say online, even as it provides no limits or advice on what we should say.
A free-press issue of a different sort has erupted. On Monday, White House Press SecretaryKayleigh McEnanyrevealed she had tested positive for the virus. Various press reports said correspondents were angry they had been exposed during briefings and other meetings with her and other officials over the previous few days.
An unnamed reporter wasquoted inVanity Faironline saying, People are livid. There are a lot of us, like dozens of reporters, who feel its unsafe to be doing it the way its being done. CBS News Ben Tracy commented on Twitter: I felt safer reporting in North Korea than I currently do reporting at The White House. This is just crazy.
As of Tuesday, three journalists in the White House press pool had tested positive. In theVanity Fairreport, White House Correspondents Association PresidentZeke Miller, a reporter for The Associated Press, said that journalists at the White House have been mindful of these risks for months. At the end of the day, were there to keep the American people informed and to be their eyes and ears. That job needs to get done. Were assuming some of these risks, were there to do the job.
In the final analysis, performing that First Amendment job of being a watchdog on government even during a pandemic by reporting the facts, fairly and accurately, as they can be found, is the best medicine for a health democracy.
. . .
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at[emailprotected], or follow him on Twitter at@genefac.
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