T.J. Ducklo Ducks Out

After threatening a journalist, the White House spokesperson leaves in disgrace.

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 65th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.

T.J. Ducklo Ducks Out

Last week, a top White House spokesperson threatened a female reporter for Politico and, as a result, lost his job.

The whole ordeal came out of an odd political reporter-political official relationship between Axios’ Alexi McCammond and White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo. I am morbidly uninterested in their relationship, though let’s note there’s an ethical morass the two—and their respective organizations—should steer clear of.

You can read the version the couple wanted the public to know in People, published just before Ducklo went rogue:

But Politico reporters, writing for its flagship newsletter Playbook, were also pursuing the story. After Tara Palmeri contacted McCammond for comment, Ducklo spun around and phoned Palmeri and berated her with language that I won’t fully re-print. “I will destroy you,” was the clean part.

Well, the whole thing naturally leaked to Vanity Fair and the rest goes like this: The White House suspended Ducklo for one week and made him apologize. (For what it’s worth, he sent Palmeri a meager apology.) But the press corps wasn’t happy. Biden had just recently promised that he would fire any staffer “on the spot” if they were found being disrespectful—this seemed like a promise broken just a month into the job. Ducklo resigned the next day.

I have some thoughts (many of which I have tweeted):

  • Don’t threaten journalists.

  • Don’t threaten anyone.

  • Don’t sexually harass journalists.

  • Don’t sexually harass anyone.

  • I’ve read too many stories of female reporters being harassed at work recently.

  • Threats are not off-the-record.

  • Biden's first PR crisis is because of his own PR staff.

  • It’s the job of spokespeople to work with journalists. If they cannot be respectful, they shouldn’t have that job—especially in the White House.

  • Politics may feel like a game, but it’s not. Journalists are at work and we’re all just doing a job. No one should be subject to abuse or harassment at work.

  • If the Biden administration wants to show that it's on higher ground than the "enemy of the people" White House that preceded it, it needs to have a zero-tolerance policy on issues like this. Ducklo should’ve been dismissed immediately.

  • The United States sets an example for the world. If Biden wants to be a champion of the press around the world, he needs to start in his own briefing room.

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Biden Wants Julian Assange

Biden administration wants Julian Assange extradited to the United States, to the dismay of press freedom and human rights advocates. The Justice Department, soon to be helmed by Merrick Garland, is continuing in lock-step from the Trump administration, which has been prosecuting Assange, the Wikileaks founder, under Espionage Act and computer hacking charges.

As I recently wrote about in this newsletter, a British court denied a U.S. request for Assange’s extradition in January, not because of threats to press freedom but because of the state of the U.S. prison system and Assange’s own mental health. Last week, Biden’s DOJ appealed that ruling.

In response, 24 human right and press freedom groups wrote a letter to Biden’s acting attorney general, Monty Wilkinson, urging him to cease the prosecution and attempted extradition of Assange, which they call a “grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.” The coalition, which includes the ACLU, the Committee to Protect Journalists and many others, writes:

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.

These Espionage Act charges revolve fairly standard journalistic practices: In 2010, Wikileaks published leaked military materials provided by Chelsea Manning (“not his later publication of Democratic Party emails hacked by Russia during the 2016 election,” the Times caveats.) Separately, the single charge for computer hacking conspiracy has been described as legally shaky since it rests on Assange promising to help Manning crack a password, though that is certainly not acceptable or standard journalistic practice. (The lawyer Tor Ekeland describes the legal intricacies well in this 2019 Wired piece.)

The letter is framed in a way that would surely turn Biden’s stomach.

The Trump administration positioned itself as an antagonist to the institution of a free and unfettered press in numerous ways. Its abuse of its prosecutorial powers was among the most disturbing. We are deeply concerned about the way that a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged—perhaps by a future administration—against publishers and journalists of all stripes. Major news organizations share this concern, which is why the announcement of charges against Assange in May 2019 was met with vociferous and nearly universal condemnation from virtually every major American news outlet, even though many of those news outlets have criticized Mr. Assange in the past.

It’s worth reading the list of signatories in full: Access Now, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International - USA, Center for Constitutional Rights, Committee to Protect Journalists, Defending Rights and Dissent, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, First Amendment Coalition, Free Press, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, National Coalition Against Censorship, Open The Government, Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, PEN America, Project on Government Oversight, Reporters Without Borders, Roots Action, The Press Freedom Defense Fund of First Look Institute, Whistleblower & Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts.

It’s hard to get 24 organizations to agree on anything these days.

Reporters Without Borders’ Rebecca Vincent told The Times simply: “This marks a major missed opportunity for President Biden to distance himself from the Trump administration’s terrible record on press freedom.”

In the U.S.

Around the World

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