Like most journalists, I find it disturbing that the Justice Department went fishing for sources in the phone records of the Associated Press without giving the news organization a chance to take the matter to a judge. We can now add to that the department’s dive into the emails and phone calls of Fox News correspondent James Rosen. As I’ve written before (here and here, for example) this is the most zealous administration in modern times when it comes to the pursuit of leakers. That’s chilling, but there’s no suggestion it’s criminal.
As a Latino immigrant now living in America, I’m proud to call a country home where the media remains courageous enough to poke holes around the pillars of power.
That’s why what has happened to my colleague James Rosen is so offensive to me.
Rosen has aggressively reported on the inner sanctum of diplomacy: the State Department. Yet he is now suspected of being a criminal, a co-conspirator, in a plan “to disclose sensitive United States internal documents and intelligence information.”
It is an accusation wrought with the chill of all that is wrong with the kind of totalitarian government that my family escaped — except it’s happening here, in the U.S., in our democracy.
Six in 10 Americans say the Justice Department “went too far” when it seized the phone records of reporters working at the Associated Press (AP) without prior notice. That’s almost twice as many as the 31 percent who think the actions were “justified” because the government was looking for leaks about a terrorist plot.
Most Republicans (77 percent) and a majority of independents (62 percent) feel the Justice Department went too far. Nearly half of Democrats agree (45 percent), while almost as many say the government was justified (44 percent).
The recent controversies have taken a toll on the president’s standing with voters.
The Rosen affair is as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush’s administration, and it uses technology to silence critics in a way Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of…
Beyond that, the administration’s actions shatter the president’s credibility and discourage allies who would otherwise defend the administration against bogus accusations such as those involving the Benghazi “talking points.” If the administration is spying on reporters and accusing them of criminality just for asking questions — well, who knows what else this crowd is capable of doing?…
If Obama really is “a fierce defender of the First Amendment,” as his spokesman would have it, he will move quickly to fix this. Otherwise, Obama is establishing an ominous precedent for future leaders whose fondness for the First Amendment may not be so fierce.
The broader question here is Obama’s attitude toward press freedom, the First Amendment, and scrutiny of the government he leads. The answer, by the way, cannot be found in Obama’s suddenly revived interest in a media-shield law. That’s because the bill Obama asked Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to resurrect would make it easier for the Justice Department to investigate and jail reporters who refuse to disclose sources for stories deemed threatening to national security. Obama reversed course on press freedoms when he became president, and the shield law he now champions would have provided no protection to the AP…
In a broad national security context, Obama is only willing to accommodate the need for information. Not protect. Not balance. Not uphold. Accommodate. It’s particularly telling that Obama offered this narrow interpretation of the First Amendment in Erdogan’s presence. Turkey is debating its own bleak history of imprisoning and fining journalists and media organizations for criticizing the government. Turkey is also in the middle of rewriting its constitution and deciding how best to apportion press freedoms. Obama’s remarks, at minimum, invited a crabbed interpretation of press freedoms.
Because they tend to share his broad outlook on politics, too many journalists for too long have been in the tank for Obama, explaining away or minimizing his policy failures and reversals. Remember Obama’s heartfelt insistence that he would run the most transparent administration ever? Take a look at this document about warrantless searches of text messages that his administration finally coughed up to the ACLU and get back to me. It’s 15 pages of completely redacted prose. Such a document would be funny if it wasn’t coming from a secrecy-obsessed administration that has put the brakes on fulfilling FOIA requests and has charged a record number of people under The Espionage Act…
Was Obama so gaseous in the classroom when he taught constitutional law? Such hoary old encomia to abstract verities are laughable in the face of how all the president’s men are actually going about their business of surveilling and harassing the press. As is Obama’s ritual incantation of the need for a federal media shield law, which he says will help strike the necessary “balance” between the government’s desires to control discourse and the press’s obligation to reveal government actions.
It’s easy to understand why he would be bothered by unwanted leaks in his administration. But his problem is the press’s gain. By definition, any media shield law is predicated upon the government defining just who counts as a “journalist” and is thus worthy of protection – and who doesn’t count and is thus subject to prosecution. Thanks, President Obama, but we don’t need no stinking press badges, especially in an age where all sorts of decentralized reporting and unconventional news gathering come online faster than the next second-term scandal. The First Amendment is all the shield law any American needs, especially when it’s supplemented by the protections offered by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. What we really need is a president who lives by the Constitution more than he nods to it.
In the morning, those who have engaged in whorish behavior—or in this case, those rewarded with invitations to insider Washington parties and access to private e-mail lists—are somehow astonished by a lack of respect. Members of the media, including Associated Press reporters, after favoring and flattering Obama for years, were stunned to discover that Obama’s Department of Justice was treating them like tarts and had targeted the AP with secret subpoenas.
The end of the affair is always painful and poignant. Unaccustomed to sunlight, fleeing suspicions of malfeasance and outright criminality, the Obama administration is pleading guilty to incompetence and ignorance. Benghazi? Hey, who knew the Libyans to whom we had been secretly running guns would turn them on us? We didn’t want to make things worse by calling the cops. Besides, we knew the media would let the story die. The IRS? Shock. Outrage. Never heard of the place.
An independent press is a compass, a vital part of the American system of checks and balances. It can provide the ship of state with mid-course corrections. But a compass that swings any way the helmsman wants is worse than useless. It points the way to disaster.
“Obviously, I have a bias here. But even if you side with this president over those of us in the media who challenge his administration, it is important to remember the precedent these actions set going forward. Perhaps, when it’s not your guy in the White House.”
“The idea that the administration is pursuing leakers is actually not entirely accurate,” Powers stated. “What they pursue is whistleblowers. They pursue people who are calling the government out.” When so-called leaks benefit the president, she said, they are not pursued. “Is there a leak investigation into who leaked the information about the Osama bin Laden raid? I’m not aware of that.”