Mike Pence isn't promising anything, but it looks like he might be journalists' best hope for ending Donald Trump's crackdowns on the media.
Speaking with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday, the Republican vice-presidential nominee said the Trump campaign is having internal conversations about its practice of denying credentials to reporters and news outlets who criticize the business mogul. Pence seemed uncomfortable with what happened Wednesday at a rally in Wisconsin, where a Washington Post reporter was denied entry, even after waiting in the general-admission line and agreeing to leave his cellphone and computer in his car.
Trump stripped The Post of press credentials in June, calling the newspaper "phony" and "dishonest," but Post reporters had previously been able to cover his events by entering as regular members of the crowd, even if they were barred from designated media areas. The GOP presidential nominee has also denied press passes to journalists from Politico, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, the Des Moines Register and the New Hampshire Union Leader, among others.
"I found out about that" incident in Wisconsin, Pence told Hewitt. "We had a great rally the other night with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and some of the local folks — some of the local folks, you know, asked for credentials from reporters, and there was a reporter that was not permitted in the setting. And, I'll tell you, we're all talking about that. I had a long — I have a long history, as you well know, Hugh, of advocating and defending for a free and independent press."
"You know," he said, "I authored legislation in the Congress. We actually got it passed once or twice, to create, you know, the ability to keep confidential sources confidential. So we're going to have those conversations internally, and I fully expect in the next 100 days we're going to continue to be available to the media, whether they're fair or unfair, and we're going to take our case to the American people directly."
Pence, the governor of Indiana, isn't universally viewed as a champion of a free press. Last year, the Indianapolis Star reported that he was planning to launch a state-run news service, a move critics denounced as an attempt to circumvent the independent media. He quickly scuttled the idea.
But Pence did earn praise from journalists during his time in Congress for supporting a federal shield law. In 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review called him "journalism's best ally in the fight to protect anonymous sources":
After reading an editorial in The New York Times about Judith Miller's jailing and the need for a federal reporter's privilege, Pence took it upon himself to champion the legislative effort for a federal media shield law, which would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. Pence, a forty-seven-year-old lawyer and former talk-show host, may not like what he sees as "bad news bias" in the mainstream media, but he's far more troubled by the "rising tide of cases where federal prosecutors have used the threat of jail time or outright jail time to coerce reporters to reveal confidential sources." For the last two years, Pence has been the primary legislative force behind the shield-law effort, making it one of his signature issues.
"Our founders did not put the freedom of the press in the First Amendment because they got good press — quite the opposite was true," he says. For Pence, the shield law represents a good-government provision, one that would ultimately help citizens "make informed decisions" about their leadership.
Miller, of course, is the former Times reporter who in 2005 spent almost three months in jail because she refused to identify the government source who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. A special prosecutor sought Miller's help while investigating whether the leak violated a federal law against disclosing the identities of covert agents, as well as whether the leak was retaliation against Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had publicly criticized the George W. Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq.
Miller's source, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, ultimately released her from their confidentiality agreement. Libby was convicted in 2007 on charges related to the leak.
Miller, now a Fox News contributor, wrote last week about how Pence invited her to his office after she was released from jail and promised to fight for a shield law:
True to his word, Mr. Pence introduced the "Free Flow of Information Act" with Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia. "As a conservative who believes in limited government," he said after reintroducing the legislation, which failed the first time he proposed it, "I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press."
Pence's bill was far from perfect. The language describing when reporters would be forced to reveal sources on national security grounds was far broader than I would have liked. First Amendment purists attacked it then and now as being too loose, noting that most politically sensitive cases ensnaring reporters and classified information involve "national security" information.
Yet writing in The New Yorker, even Steve Coll, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University who is no fan of Mr. Pence’s, called the legislation "politically plausible ... " and "much, much better than the status quo." The bill was also endorsed by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Pence's bill failed to make it through both houses of Congress, and there is still no federal shield law. Based on that record, perhaps journalists shouldn't get too excited about having him as an advocate inside the Trump campaign.