Obama's War on Journalism Coming to a Head
A Supreme Court ruling against NYT reporter James Risen, who is refusing to reveal sources, leaves the Department of Justice with a serious decision to make on whether it will finally defend press freedoms or continue its attack on them.
Ten months after the Committee to Protect Journalists issued its scathing report “The Obama Administration and the Press,” journalists and potential whistleblowers continue to face unprecedented surveillance and legal jeopardy. The report, authored by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, remains grimly up to date as it describes “the fearful atmosphere surrounding contacts between American journalists and government sources.”
The US Department of Justice seems determined to intensify that fearful atmosphere—in part by threatening to jail New York Times reporter James Risen, who refuses to name any source for the disclosure in his 2006 book State of War that the CIA bungled a dumb and dangerous operation with nuclear weapons blueprints in Iran.
The government is now prosecuting a former CIA employee, Jeffrey Sterling, for allegedly leaking that information to Risen. Attorney General Eric Holder may soon decide whether he wants to imprison Risen for not capitulating. The Freedom of the Press Foundation calls it “one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades.”
Almost a year ago, under the letterhead of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 46 news organizations sent a letter to Holder urging the Justice Department to withdraw the subpoena issued to Risen. Two months ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists put out a new statement again calling on the Justice Department to cancel the subpoena.
This summer, both RCFP and CPJ have gotten behind a petition, “We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press,” set for delivery to the Justice Department in mid-August with nearly 100,000 signers.
The petition was initiated in early May by the online activist group RootsAction.org, of which I am a founder, in tandem with several other organizations: the Center for Media and Democracy, the media watch group FAIR, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and The Nation.
The petition reads:
To: President Obama and Attorney General Holder
Your effort to compel New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources is an assault on freedom of the press. Without confidentiality, journalism would be reduced to official stories—a situation antithetical to the First Amendment. We urge you in the strongest terms to halt all legal action against Mr. Risen and to safeguard the freedom of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.
Thousands of petition signers have posted comments that are, I would say, often eloquent and moving. They attest to how deeply people feel that a free press is essential to democracy. Support for the petition is also coming from Reporters Without Borders, the Government Accountability Project, Public Citizen, and other groups.
In many ways, the Risen case has become a battle over fear—a tug-of-war over whether the “fearful atmosphere” cited by the CPJ report last fall will prevail.
On August 14, the same day that the petition supporting Risen is scheduled for delivery to the Justice Department, a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington will discuss the petition and what’s at stake. Appropriately, the news conference is set for the Zenger Room—named for the colonial journalist John Peter Zenger, who was jailed by the British Crown for refusing to knuckle under to illegitimate authority. Hopefully, 280 years later, it won’t come to that for James Risen.
Readers who want to assist with the petition supporting James Risen are invited to email TheFirstAmendment@usa.com.
© 2014 Columbia Journalism Review