When President Obama was elected in 2008, many expected an unprecedented age in journalism: an age of increased access to information and protections for journalists and their sources. When candidate Obama spoke at a 2008 AP luncheon, he heralded his support for a federal shield law, and his campaign materials touted a promise of protection for whistleblowers under his administration.
Instead of freedom, however, this administration has been marked by unprecedented attacks on journalists that could have long-standing repercussions for press freedom. A perfect example of this pattern of threats to the First Amendment can be found in the case of James Rosen, a Fox News reporter who used leaked information in a story examining how North Korea might have reacted to UN Security Council sanctions. The DOJ labeled Rosen a criminal “co-conspirator” in the leak, and seized Rosen’s phone records and other private data.
But the federal government’s threat to journalism doesn’t end there. With the revelation in May that the DOJ had collected two months of AP phone records, it seems Rosen’s story may be becoming more of a rule than an exception. These instances represent not only invasion of the privacy of journalists, but also suppression of these reporters’ expected First Amendment protections. This is of concern in of itself. What is even more concerning, however, is the far-reaching implications of this pattern.
In a society in which sources must consider whether the government is listening each time they pick up the phone to dial a reporter, sources will likely disappear. Journalism depends on sources; without sources, reporters glean no information and have nothing to report. Hence, government invasion into journalists’ private data has the capacity to create a chilling effect on the reporting of government affairs. When this invasion of privacy is combined with Obama’s unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers, who are often important sources in journalistic investigations, the threat to journalism is amplified.
The situation appears even more grave when we examine the case of New York Times reporter James Risen, who may be forced to either testify against a source or face time behind bars after the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled he has no reporters privilege.
Let’s review: Recent events show that the government justifies invading journalists’ privacy, finding their sources, prosecuting their sources, and then justifies forcing the reporters to testify against their sources. But no recent event is as frightening for the state of journalism as the detention of Barrett Brown, the journalist who, in researching a story, posted a public link he had found, and now faces the possibility of a century in prison. Congress, with Obama’s support, has responded to public outcry with federal shield law legislation. Unfortunately Congress is creating a narrow definition of a journalist as someone who “regularly” engages in journalism (the House bill adds the requirement that a person be paid). That leaves out many public interest bloggers and freelancers. But even that is too broad for Senator Feinstein, who has said she only wants to protect “real reporters”. She is offering an amendment narrowing the definition further to limit protections to salaried journalists who work for traditional media (not blogs).
Washington Post: Obama’s War on Leaks – Reporters Fight Back (106/13)
Washington Post: The new paranoia: A government afraid of itself (8/15/13)
Lindsie Trego is DDF’s Fall 2013 Intern. She is a senior at Whitworth University.