I have always been pretty protective of the Fourth Estate.
Journalism, to me, is a form of public service. Newspapers and other forms of media strive to keep citizens informed and to keep politicians and other officials honest.
We don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but without it corruption levels grow and accountability falters.
The Justice Department’s revelation last week that they had been combing through The Associated Press’ phone records for months was chilling.
The Justice Department’s supposed purpose was to find the person who told The AP about the CIA’s disruption of a Yemen-based terror plot.
The media and government constantly battle over the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy during investigations and cases of national security. But, invading the records of the press is dangerous territory.
I know invade sounds like an extreme word to use in this case, but typically the government gives news organizations notice and a chance to negotiate or contest such a subpeona ahead of time. That did not happen in this case and the records were obtained without the knowledge of the reporters or The AP.
It is hard enough to get government officials and whistleblowers to go on the record with us sometimes. This will make it harder because those same officials will now know their phone calls, at least the fact that they happened, are on record.
It is unlikely any journalist would have revealed their sources for the articles written on the foiled plot. Reporters time and again have been prosecuted and jailed for refusing to reveal sources, i.e. The New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
The government’s raid of The AP phone records essentially bypasses reporter’s privilege or shield laws, which is the right of reporters to refuse to testify as to information and/or sources of information obtained during newsgathering.
Most states have a shied law. In fact, 49 states and Washington, D.C., offer some sort of protection for journalists, though they vary state to state. Wyoming is the only state without legislation or judicial precedent to protect reporter’s privilege.
The government’s indifference to these laws and disregard for the importance of a free press goes beyond disheartening.
As Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, said in a recent article in The New York Times, “The message is loud and clear that if you work for the federal government and talk to a reporter that we will find you.”