Constitutional framers established a free press to make sure there would be watchdogs around to keep an eye on the government. The press serves a surrogates role for citizens who are not in a position to carefully monitor the daily goings-on of their elected government officials. Thats what makes the administrations current assaults on reporters so disturbing. When the government attacks the press, it is, in reality, attacking its own citizens.
By JEFFREY M. McCALL
Special to The Star
Department of Justice intrusions into phone and email records of reporters at Associated Press and Fox News demonstrate a shocking lack of understanding of the press surrogate status. This dangerous mindset calls to mind the Nixonian attitude that the press was the enemy of government, rather than a constitutionally protected sentry for the public. Administration officials tried to defend their monitoring of press phone records with generalized concerns about national security but failed to adequately explain what potential harm was happening.
Everyone sees the need to protect national security. The administrations war on journalism, however, has less to do with security than it does with shutting up government leakers, which is a worry for the administration, not the press. There are other ways to close government leaks without spying on reporters.
The effect of this press surveillance is reporter intimidation, likely the administrations ultimate objective. Every reporter who interacts with administration officials must now wonder if his communications are being monitored, especially if a story might not be to the administrations liking.
The White Houses concern about security leaks is highly selective. The New York Times and Washington Post have both run multiple stories during the Obama administration with leaked information about drones, Iran and cybersecurity matters. Those news organizations seem to have escaped DOJ monitoring, perhaps because the administration felt those leaks were beneficial.
Its no surprise that Fox News would be a target for the administration. The White House has often had its spokesmen berate FNC in public. While it is understandable that thin-skinned White House officials wouldnt like the Fox approach to reporting, the step to investigate Foxs James Rosen as a possible criminal for engaging in standard reporting activities is scary.
To soothe the journalism industrys worries, President Barack Obama had Attorney General Eric Holder host meetings with journalists. The meetings were held off the record, providing further evidence that the administration doesnt understand the role of a free press. Not surprisingly, news from inside the meetings leaked out.
The president and Holder also tried to mend journalistic fences by calling for a federal shield law. Such a law would exempt reporters from revealing their news sources in court, except in rare cases involving national security. This is nothing more than throwing a bone at the press to distract them from the real issue of the government looking into reporters records. A shield law would not prevent an administration from prying into AP or Fox phone records.
Add in Internal Revenue Service attempts to stifle political speech and recent news that cabinet-level officials keep secret email accounts that could escape Freedom of Information requests, and it becomes clear that the administration is comfortable with limiting national dialogue and stifling the flow of information that the First Amendment is designed to foster.
The journalistic communitys ire has been raised on these issues but the public should be equally troubled. Sadly, too many citizens have a hard time envisioning the press as the publics surrogate. A Rasmussen Reports survey shows 42 percent of the public has lost trust in the media. Only 68 percent of the public believes freedom of the press is very important. That figure should be 100 percent.
The press can hardly be a surrogate when the public has so little understanding of the role a free press serves in a democracy. The disconnect between the press as surrogate and the public it is designed to represent allows a government to exploit the circumstance. One must wonder if the DOJ would have undertaken a fishing expedition on reporters phone records if it feared wider public outcry. Any governments commitment to free expression and robust national debate hinges on the public and its press surrogate demanding it. The journalism community will have to work harder to explain and earn its surrogate role.