The message to journalists is clear: divulge sources or go to jail.
One week after President Trump accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of being weak on leaks of classified material, Sessions says the Department of Justice will review and revise guidelines on the issuance of subpoenas to journalists.
It’s an aggressive attempt to stop the persistent leaks coming out of the White House, leaks so bad the roof is threatening to cave in.
Trump isn’t the first president to take a combative stance, claiming leaks compromise national intelligence and hamper political negotiating capabilities.
The Obama Administration used a 100-year-old Espionage Act against defendants like Chelsea Manning who served seven years for supplying classified information to WikiLeaks.
We agree there may be times when a journalist might cross the line and endanger national security and put the lives of intelligence agents or sources at risk. That would be a real problem and should be dealt with.
In May Sessions invoked such risks when he said of journalists, “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.”
But the only life at risk we perceive here is Donald Trump’s political one, and that demise will most likely come at his own hand. It’s not just leaks, but his own tweets that reveal chaos and incompetence coming from inside his administration.
The president’s stated concern is also undercut when he casually shares classified data, as he did Tuesday, when he tweeted a Fox News story that was based on classified secrets disclosed by anonymous sources.
All of this begs the question, “where the heck is Congressman Pence?” The same guy who once said, “I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.”
Ten years ago, Vice President Mike Pence, then a Republican congressman from Indiana, was hailed by the Columbia Journalism Review as “journalism’s best ally in the fight to protect anonymous sources.”
Pence introduced the bipartisan “Free Flow of Information Act,” a bill that provided journalists the right to refuse to testify on information leading to sources.
Criticized for its narrow definition of journalists and its broad definition of what constituted national security grounds; it didn’t pass. Similar bipartisan legislation popped up in 2013 pushing for a federal media shield law (much like one that Washington and other states have) that protected a reporter’s privilege. It also failed to make it through both houses of Congress.
Today, we join the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Associated Press Media Editors who call on Congress to reintroduce federal legislation protecting journalists and their sources.
Journalism is already a vulnerable institution. The business model for traditional news organizations -- newspapers, radio and television -- is being radically altered by the internet. In the new digital age news consumers can construct their own news packages -- with solid or suspect news providers -- with a series of clicks.
But the need for news based on facts is as essential as ever, maybe more so, considering the amount of “fake news” circulating in cyberspace, some of it from our own president.
It matters not that presidents or attorneys general like us. Our purpose is to shine lights in places of darkness and reveal truth. The day government stops journalists from investigating stories wherever they lead, or uses journalists as tools for propaganda, is the day democracy dies.
A true journalist serves only one master: an informed citizenry.