The government vs. journalists

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These are not journalism's salad days. The Internet has knocked out the pillar that traditionally supported expensive reporting — classified ads and other forms of print advertising. Additionally, the relentlessness of the 24-hour news cycle demands ever faster reporting, and with far fewer resources.

Meanwhile, the country is governed by a president who has made no secret of his disdain for much of the news media. He's talked of "opening up the libel laws" to make it easier to bankrupt journalistic enterprises. He routinely lambastes critical reporting as being so much "fake news."

So far, so bad. Our system of government is utterly dependent on a robust press — the ultimate check on our elected officials. A United States without a healthy news media, dedicated to truthful and objective reporting that fairly calls all parties to account, is one in which our governmental and corporate overlords could get away with any manner of abuse.

One of the ways the press holds powerful organizations to account is by generating sources within them. Think Mark Felt — "Deep Throat," of Watergate fame. That's why it's so disturbing that, in a climate already inhospitable to the press, the Department of Justice is reportedly seeking to revise its guidelines for when prosecutors can seize the records of journalists. This is an apparent effort to curtail leaks from confidential sources. The department's proposed revisions would have a chilling effect on the free operation of the press.

Longtime journalist John Solomon, writing at The Hill, has the story. "The current system requires prosecutors in most cases to exhaust all obvious investigative methods for identifying leaks before seeking to intrude on a journalist's free-speech rights," Mr. Solomon reports. This strikes the right balance, allowing bureaucracies to investigate leaks without hampering the operation of the press and the free exercise of the First Amendment.

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However, proposed changes at the department would "lower the threshold that prosecutors must meet before requesting subpoenas for journalists' records ... and eliminate the need to alert a media organization that Justice intends to issue a subpoena."

The government hates when its agents leak to the press; and why wouldn't it? Presidential administrations have reasons to keep the nation's secrets secret, though in too many cases they use security as an excuse to shield themselves from scrutiny. Meanwhile, the actions of the Justice Department in recent years have seemed increasingly and ominously political.

President Trump's Justice Department is hardly the first to go after leakers. As Mr. Solomon recounts, when he was a reporter for the Associated Press in the early 2000s, "the Justice Department and then-Deputy Attorney General Robert Mueller — yes, the same one now running the Russia investigation — subpoenaed my phone records without notifying AP." President Barack Obama's administration behaved similarly, spying on journalist James Rosen and prosecuting journalist James Risen.

If there is any hope that the department will relent, it's that the mooted changes are apparently being prepared at the behest of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Mr. Rosenstein is expected to leave the department soon.

Here's hoping that William Barr, likely to be the next attorney general, scuttles this ill-founded proposal.

— The Providence Journal


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