Whether or not Risen is substantively correct about the Obama administration being the worst on press freedom in a generation is a different question, and the answer is likely to vary based on who you ask. Besides political activism, reporters tend to stay away from stories in which they’re directly implicated, since it tends to shape their perception. But Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan took the somewhat counterintuitive stand that this makes it more important for him to lead: “Because of his personal experiences, someone like James Risen has an obligation to speak out strongly on press rights.”
In any case, Risen has a point. In addition to his own persecution, the Justice Department has pursued Fox reporter James Rosen. Ann Compton, who covered every president from Ford to Obama, also said this is the least transparent. While Holder has promised not to jail reporters, it seems to be a statement of personal preference, not Justice Department policy. He hasn’t pulled back from trying to get reporters to divulge their sources—only from certain tactics—and he has presided over a massive crackdown on leaks inside the administration. There are of course good reasons why the government would wish to reduce leaking, but it’s also an essential outlet for whistleblowers. Leaks lubricate the machinery of free press.
Meanwhile, the White House has been working on a whole slate of methods for bypassing reporters—or at least national political reporters. That means disseminating information directly to the public through videos, White House blogs, and Medium, and granting interviews to late-night shows, local journalists, and YouTube celebrities rather than to folks like, well, The New York Times’ James Risen.