At a conference on media coverage of national security issues in New York, New York Times reporter James Risen called the Obama administration "the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation." He would certainly know. The Department of Justice is trying to force him to reveal whether a former CIA official is a source of classified information he used in a book. The CIA agent, Jeffrey Sperling, is one of seven Americans the Obama administration has charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Nixonification of the administration on free press issues is not exactly new news. As usual, I'm left wondering why journalists are surprised that an administration that wants to control so much of Americans' lives with health care mandates and an omnipresent framework of executive branch regulation also wants to control them. Were they really, truly surprised that they would be included among that which the Obama administration seeks to manhandle into compliance? Risen added the media has been "too timid" in responding. Maybe it's because other media outlets aren't being affected? To put a cynical spin on it, the media has largely been fine with the expansion of executive branch power under Barack Obama except when it affects the media. While there's an increasing interest in media scrutiny of national security issues, it's still a small portion of what the media does. If many media outlets' concerns about executive power are based only on self-interest, then those who aren't involved in security reporting might not care what happens to guys like Risen.
And then there's also the "working the ref" angle Reason's Matt Welch noted last year when looking at the media's failure to adequately critique the Affordable Care Act before the whole thing went into effect and immediately crashed and burned. Our media is often just as thin-skinned about criticism as our president is rumored to be. And the surest way to put the media on the defensive is to accuse it of unfairness and of being manipulated. Example: Note how intelligence officials claim the media doesn't truly understand the information Edward Snowden is leaking and is misreporting, even though the facts of the documents Snowden has provided have not been disproven. But because of the pressure of this response from the intel community, the media feels compelled to pass along any claim that NSA metadata surveillance has helped prevent terrorist attacks, despite the lack of any evidence that the claim is at all true.
In other news about the relationship between government and media, obviously whenever a government official claims they will put policies or laws into place that preserve media freedom, it should immediately be treated as likely nonsense. After the Department of Justice revealed it had gotten secret subpoenas to gather the phone records of several Associated Press reporters to try to find a leak, the agency detailed new guidelines for behavior. The stated intent was to clarify and reduce situations where officials can demand records from journalists. Unfortunately, the policy gives the Department of Justice clearance to make decisions based on what it classifies as "ordinary newsgathering," which is not a distinction the government should be allowed to make. The DOJ also needs to believe that there are "reasonable grounds" that a crime has occurred, which is almost no protection at all from a government that is using an espionage law to try to convict leakers. When a government operates in an environment where it believes a crisis is an opportunity to expand its reach, there's a corollary: Treat every problem like a crisis. No doubt the DOJ will be able to manufacture "reasonable grounds" whenever it feels it needs to.
And that leads to the proposed federal shield law, which would help protect journalists from having to reveal sources to the federal government, mimicking the new DOJ policy. Except, again, it's full of all sorts of exceptions. All the feds have to do is convince a judge that the information is national security issue and the protection for journalists collapses. It also allows the feds to keep the delay in notifying media outlets that their records were taken if they believe notification would impair their investigations, which it almost always certainly would, so what happened to the Associated Press will likely happen again. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he thinks he has the votes to get the shield law through the Senate, but there's little reason to trust that adding one more judge to the mix will provide any better oversight.