Brian Sandford: Spying on the media is a slippery slope
Newspapers and other media outlets rely on federal government protections — primarily the First Amendment — to perform our all-important watchdog role. In the course of doing our jobs, we often scrutinize the very government that offers those protections.
It’s part of a checks-and-balances system that has worked well for our free nation for more than 220 years. The Justice Department’s recent disregard for that system is a chilling sign for freedom of the press, and freedom in general.
The department acquired two months’ worth of Associated Press staffers’ phone records for reasons it hasn’t made clear, ostensibly as part of an investigation into who might have leaked information in a story about a foiled terrorism plot.
In doing so, the government stuck its nose where it doesn’t belong. Reporters develop lengthy lists of sources — some confidential — they consult in the course of their work. The most famous in U.S. history was Deep Throat (later revealed to be former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt), who tipped off two Washington Post reporters about a scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Less famous, but also important, are the sources who tip us off frequently to good stories affecting Carson City.
The idea of any government secretly learning the identities of the people with whom our reporters have communicated goes down about as well as a tablespoon of castor oil. The AP’s reaction is framed in President and CEO Gay Pruitt’s recent protest letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, who has denied involvement. That claim invites a set of questions about who WAS involved.
Prosecutors have sought information about sources and reporters’ phone records before, but not to this grand scope. Pruitt refers to the action as “overbroad” in his letter.
“These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” he wrote.
When the government essentially spies on news media outlets for no clear reason, it pushes us down a slippery slope toward the day when government monitors everything the media does or even runs it. News media outlets nationwide have condemned the Justice Department’s recent actions partly for that reason.
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Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at email@example.com.