Why seizing journalists’ records is the last option, not the first


The latest revelations about the Obama Administration overstepping its moral authority, if not entirely its legal one, in dealing with enemies both real and perceived have left me melancholy.  At best.  While I am buoyed to see that the concept of using the IRS as a blunt instrument  to punish one’s political opponents seems to have won near-unanimous disapproval, the idea that the government shouldn’t be investigating reporters seems not to be getting quite so much support, at least not outside of journalism.

This government is out of bounds—and out of its mind—if it believes that treating journalists as suspected criminals is legally or morally the right way to go.  A government led by a former professor of constitutional law should know better, even if that government has prosecuted more alleged leakers than any previous one.  The things we’re learning about, or which have been alleged, in just a matter of a few days, are stupefying: not just secretly seizing reporters’ phone records and examining their emails, but treating the reporter as though he were a criminal suspect and investigating his associates—even looking at the reporter’s parents’ phone records!

(Look here for links to a number of good stories, editorials and op/eds on government overreach of authority, the attack on civil liberties, and uncomplimentary comparisons to the administrations of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.  Look here for a first-hand account of the “Kafkaesque” experience of a reporter who had his phone records secretly seized by two government agencies more than 20 years ago.)

Government has a right to protect its secrets; and yes, I think there are circumstances in which government should properly keep information from general distribution.  But unless the information is (1) critical to preserving public safety and security and (2) cannot be obtained in any other way, the government should not be allowed to try to compel journalists to turn over unpublished research or provide testimony or rat out their associates, because that turns those reporters into de facto government investigators and will make people with stories to leak and asses to protect choose their asses over the story. Seizing journalists’ records or compelling testimony is the last option, not the first one, and it’s up a court to decide that, on a case by case basis.

I don’t think journalists have a legal “right” to protect sources; others disagree.  I think they must protect sources if they hope to be effective at their job, but I don’t think the law shields them from any and every effort by the government to uncover information.  (Unless there’s a shield law.)  And I think journalists should be prepared to pay the price under law when they choose to protect their sources, as a good journalist should, while simultaneously refusing to comply with a lawful court order, as a good citizen should.

Yes, Sarah Palin, it’s possible to be a good journalist and a good citizen.  All good citizens are not good journalists, but all good journalists are good citizens when they fulfill a critical role in the functioning of a free society: to tell citizens those things that people in power don’t want us to know; to inform us of what is being done in our name and on our behalf.

I’m not making a case for the purveyors of “news you can use”—things like consumer news, what’s trending on social media, breathless reports on developments on a TV network’s prime time entertainment program as if it was the explosion of the Hindenburg (yes, I’m talking to you, KTRK-TV in Houston); that’s the sissified bullshit kind of “news” we get from outlets that sold their souls when they bought the line of crap peddled by non-journalist consultants whose only real goal is increased profitability.  (I’m not opposed to profit, by the way—I’d like to have been better at it myself—but I am opposed to those organizations for which profit is the only or primary reason for being, and to the people who see journalism as just another product to sell like cook pans or bicycles or bird seed.)

I mean to make the case for the journalism that is there to confront those in power, one citizen to another, and to tell the rest of us what’s going on with the people we’ve authorized to spend our money and operate our governments, from Washington, D.C. to the state capitols and from counties and cities to utility districts and homeowner’s associations.  I mean the journalism that is envisioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it guarantees us the right to a free press right alongside the freedom of religion and freedom of speech and freedom of peaceable assembly and redress of grievances.

How well do American journalists do in living up to that standard?  Each according to his talents, like the rest of us.  The ones Don Henley sang about a generation ago are still around and (still) aren’t even trying, but the ones who are trying to do the job the right way for the right reasons deserve our respect and the respect of our government, regardless of who is president at the moment.

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This entry was posted in American Values, Civil Liberties, History, Justice, Media Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why seizing journalists’ records is the last option, not the first

  1. Frances says:

    I agree totally! This administration is going too far with all this crap.

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