Will Journalists Take Any Steps to Defend Against Attacks on Press Freedom?

Media outlets have awakened to the serious threats posed to journalism, but show little sign of doing anything about it

Media outlets and journalists have finally awakened to the serious threat posed by the Obama administration to press freedoms, whistle blowing and transparency. Apparently, what was necessary for them to be prodded out of their slumber was watching people they perceive as "one of them" have their emails secretly seized and be accused of serious felonies. The question now: what, if anything, will they do to defend the press freedoms they claim to value? By design, there are many options the press corps has for thwarting government attacks like these. Doing so requires a real adversary posture, renouncing their subservience to government interests and fear of alienating official sources. It remains to be seen whether any of that will happen.

Why should journalists who cover the US government continue to work so hard to protect and serve the interests of government officials who are prosecuting their sources, invading their communications, calling them criminals, and attacking basic press freedoms?

What is clear is that, after the AP and especially the Fox/Rosen revelations, a real tipping point has been reached in establishment media circles in terms of how all of this is discussed. One now regularly encounters in the most mainstream circles rhetoric that, a short time ago, was the province of a small number of critics.

The New York Times editorial page warned last week that "the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news." The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote that the Obama DOJ is "treat[ing] a reporter as a criminal for doing his job" and is thus "as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush's administration, and it uses technology to silence critics in a way Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of."

So extreme is the revealed conduct that even the most conventional cable news chatterers, such as MSNBC's Chuck Todd, were able to process its significance: "They want to criminalize journalism", Todd noticed, adding: "if George Bush and Dick Cheney were doing this, imagine what candidate Obama would say. Candidate Obama would be unloading." The former long-time executive editor of the Washington Post, Leonard Downie, wrote that "the Obama administration's steadily escalating war on leaks" is "the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration", and "has disregarded the First Amendment and intimidated a growing number of government sources of information -- most of which would not be classified -- that is vital for journalists to hold leaders accountable."

Meanwhile, the few places where one has previously found loud warnings and denunciations became even more strident in the wake of these recent revelations. "What's astonishing", explained the ACLU, is that "never before has the government argued that newsgathering -- in this case, asking a source to provide sensitive information -- is itself illegal." The New York Times published a short essay from its former general counsel, James Goodale, warning that "until President Obama came into office, no one thought talking or emailing was not protected by the First Amendment"; "President Obama wants to criminalize the reporting of national security information"; and "it is a further example of how President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom" (my own NYT contribution on this matter was published alongside his).

CNN's Jake Tapper, one of the few TV journalists who has long been vocal about the Obama DOJ's attacks, warned liberals supportive of the administration's actions because Fox was a target that they were cheering for a dangerous precedent. This morning, the Daily Beast's neocon reporter Eli Like, also a consistent opponent of such prosecutions, cited the persecution of Bradley Manning along with the AP and Fox cases to explain that "without leakers, the public might never get a second opinion on what the government tells us about its most secretive actions." Liberal commentators such as The Huffington Post and Esquire's Charles Pierce even called for Holder's firing and/or resignation.

Outside of the most hardenedObamamedia loyalists, it's virtually impossible to find any defenses or even offers of excuses or mitigation for what the Obama administration has been doing in this area. As the New York Times documented this week - and has been extremely obvious for years for anyone who does investigative journalism or talks to those who do - an unprecedented climate of fear has emerged that has, as the New Yorker's Jane Mayer put it, all but brought the newsgathering process to a "standstill". It's genuinely hard to overstate how frightened people are who want to reveal incriminating government secrets and those who want to report on them. That is by design.

As a result of all this, the administration has offered characteristically symbolic gestures to placate the growing media anger, but those gestures actually solve nothing. Obama announced he was once again supporting a shield law that provides some protections to journalists, but media outlets quickly pointed out that, by design, it would have done little if not nothing to prevent any of these abuses, and could arguably empower the DOJ even more to invade journalists' communications. Then the Obama White House proudly announced that there would be an "investigation" into the DOJ's treatment of whistlelbowers and journalists, an investigation that would be led by . . . Eric Holder himself; that's DC oversight: we're going to conduct a robust investigation of ourselves.

Those steps prompted more mockery than anything else. So yesterday, Holder's friends and "associates" ran to the Daily Beast's Daniel Klaidman to assure us that the Attorney General "has been particularly stung by the leak controversy" and that - get this - "his own personal soul searching has already begun, with, among other things, the question of why he signed off on an affidavit that in retrospect he believed may have crossed the line." He's also opening a "dialogue" with media outlets to see how he can do better. Apparently, Holder didn't realize why it was so menacing to accuse a reporter of committing felonies for doing what reporters do, and now feels "regret" over what happened, now that it's been publicly exposed (amusingly, the hardest-core Obama media loyalists decided that now that even Eric Holder is expressing regret for what he did, they have permission to change their views from a defense of the DOJ's conduct to criticism of it).

So all that prompts the question of what journalists will do to compel the administration to cease these attacks on core press freedoms. If journalists aren't willing to defend these freedoms, who do they think will? The design of the American founding was that abuses of power would be prevented only by various factions fighting for their prerogatives and against encroachment by other power factions. When it comes to attacks on press freedoms, it's the responsibility of journalists, first and foremost, to fight against those attacks.

But that assumes that they actually value these freedoms. And it further assumes that they're willing to be truly adversarial rather than subservient to political power. With some rare exceptions, neither of those assumptions have been warranted for quite some time. It's very difficult to believe that this will change, all the angry media rhetoric notwithstanding.

Last week, the Huffington Post's media reporter Michael Calderone asked various White House reporters what they intend to do in response to all of this. Even when it comes to symbolic acts of protest, let alone more substantial ones, their answer: nothing. He wrote: "several veteran reporters told The Huffington Post that it's unlikely the press corps would band together in any collective action, such as walking out of the briefing room, to protest the administration's treatment of the press."

Just marvel at their excuses for inaction. "It would be unprofessional," CBS News' Mark Knoller said. "We're there to cover the president, his policies and statements, not stage a protest." ABC News' White House correspondent Ann Compton explained: "White House briefings are not advocacy sessions. We are there as reporters, to ask about presidential actions and policies not advocate, even for press freedom." Some did note that their media organizations can advocate for shield laws, but that is some extremely weak resistance to what most of them are classifying as profound attacks on core First Amendment press rights.

As Calderone detailed both in his latest article and especially in a great one he wrote after the story of the DOJ's seizure of AP emails broke, the establishment media voluntarily provides the US government with all sorts of benefits, considerations, cooperation and other informal agreements that it has no obligation to provide. Media outlets constantly go to the US government before publishing stories about classified information, seek input about what they should and should not reveal, and honor government requests, oftentimes concealing vital stories clearly in the public interest. They routinely grant anonymity to government officials in the most dubious cases, allowing those officials to propagandize the public with no accountability.

Why should journalists who cover the US government continue to work so hard to protect and serve the interests of government officials who are prosecuting their sources, invading their communications, calling them criminals, and attacking basic press freedoms? As even Bob Woodward, the ultimate establishment journalist, said on MSNBC, reporters can begin to say: "why the hell should I go to the government [about my stories], they're just going to go after my records?"

But herein lies the core problem. The reason there are all these informal, voluntary ways that media outlets serve and protect the interest of the US government is precisely because they have veered so far in the direction of subservience rather than adversary that they are virtually part of the US government. As former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith said (and he meant this as a compliment), many US journalists expressly acknowledge making journalistic choices out of what they call "patriotism" or even "jingoism". Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the Bush CIA and NSA, proudly said that "American journalists display 'a willingness to work with us.'" That is what has resulted in journalistic disgraces such as the New York Times' concealment (at the White House's request) of the existence of the illegal Bush NSA warrantless eavesdropping program until after Bush was safely re-elected, as well as the US media's willingness to allow the Obama administration to make what it knew were false claims about a CIA agent detained in Pakistan (the truth became known only once the Guardian revealed it). There are countless similar examples of the US media concealing information clearly in the public interest at the behest of the US government.

As long as that mindset festers, then it's very difficult to imagine the US press corps taking any meaningful steps to push back against these attacks. And as long as that's true, it's very hard to see why the Obama administration would possibly stop doing it. It's always in the interest of political leaders to control the flow of information and to punish those who make them look bad. That's why there is a free press guarantee in the First Amendment. If journalists aren't willing to protect it, why would anyone else?


Speaking of the subservient role the media plays with the government: Eric Holder is in the process of arranging the aforementioned meeting with media organizations to discuss the leak controversy and, as Calderone reports, the DOJ is demanding that the entire meeting be off-the-record. Writes Calderone:

"Media organizations will surely want such a newsworthy meeting with the attorney general to be on the record, and it remains to be seen if they will agree to meet under off-the-record ground rules."

Would it surprise anyone if they do agree in advance to conceal from the public everything that is said by the Attorney General and other DOJ officials about a matter of such obvious public significance? The fact that Holder feels comfortable requesting this without any sense of irony reveals how he understands the role and function of the press corps vis-a-vis political officials (as one Twitter commentator sardonically put it: "Presumably if anyone leaks what's said, he'll throw them in jail"). This is exactly the kind of constant accommodation given by the media to the US government that I was referencing here. What self-respecting journalist would agree to this condition?

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