“The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” – Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
If the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have their way, we may be seeing the beginning of the erosion of a free press, the very cornerstone of our democracy.
In a news conference on Friday*, Sessions said that Trump’s administration is pursuing three times the number of leak investigations as did the previous administration, and that the Department of Justice “is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.” Sessions claims the leaks coming out of the White House have breached national security, and he cited the two phone calls that Trump placed in January, one to Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the other to Mexican President Peña Nieto.
I would agree that the president should be able to communicate with world leaders without the conversation being shared with the public. BUT … here’s the thing. There was no information contained in either phone call that would threaten national security AND more importantly, at least in the case of the conversation with the Mexican president, there was one tidbit that we had a right to know, for in that call, he admitted he had duped his followers during the election (see my post from August 3rd).
Sessions claims that in addition to leaks to the press, there have been leaks to our foreign adversaries. Now, I do not have the information to which he refers, but one of our biggest foreign adversaries is Russia, and Trump and his advisors have been undisputedly spoon-feeding Russia information that should have been confidential for two years now!
The implication of Sessions’ statement is that the Justice Department will begin issuing subpoenas for journalists and also their records. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued the following response:
“Independent journalism in the public interest depends on reporters’ being able to communicate privately with sources,” said Alex Ellerbeck, senior Americas and U.S. researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Rolling back the limited protections on communication between journalists and their sources would lessen the public’s ability to hold their elected leaders to account and weaken hard-won standards of source protection around the world.”
In 2015, former Attorney General Eric Holder put in place guidelines that make it harder for the Department of Justice to subpoena journalists’ records. Will the DOJ now reverse those guidelines? Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, warned that the administration’s approach to cracking down on leaks risks chilling debates about important issues in the public interest.
“Whistleblowers are the nation’s first line of defense against fraud, waste, abuse and illegality within the federal government. The last thing this administration wants to do is to deter whistleblowing in an effort to stymie leaks,” Brian said. “This administration must carefully tailor the parameters for this investigation with this important consideration in mind.”
The American Civil Liberties Union warned of the greater impact that the crackdown could have. “Every American should be concerned about the Trump administration’s threat to step up its efforts against whistleblowers and journalists,” said the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, who works primarily on national security cases for the civil rights organization. “A crackdown on leaks is a crackdown on the free press and on democracy as a whole.”
Donald Trump has denigrated the free press every chance he got, calling them ‘fake news’, and even referring to them as ‘the enemy of the people’. They are not our enemy, they are our protectors. They are the providers of information about what our government is doing. The Trump administration is the least transparent in my memory, and press briefings have been a joke since the day Trump took office, with no real effort to inform, but rather used as a propaganda tool. We need the free press to remain free to access whatever sources are available without the fear of repercussion.
The following is the response to Sessions’ announcement by former CBS Evening News anchor, Dan Rather:
With all due respect, Mr. President and Attorney General Sessions, it appears you can’t handle the truth.
I understand that the press has been a mighty check on the lies, inconsistencies, and cynical ploys that have been coming out of this White House. I understand that it has led to public outcry and a wide ranging criminal investigation by a Special Counsel. I understand that much of this reporting has been based on leaks and unnamed sources, from inside the Administration and from especially the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The exercise of a free and independent press has been the exact bulwark against a government in need of accountability – just as our Founding Fathers envisioned. I shudder to think where we would be without it today.
So the news that the Justice Department is devoting significant resources to tracking down leaks and changing the rules to target the press is a chilling development. There are certainly times when an issue of great national security should not be shared with the public. And most of the journalism organizations I have known or been a part of take that responsibility very seriously. There are some cases where prosecuting leakers may – may – be warranted. But that is not what is going on here. The goal is very clear. The President has complained bitterly of leaks because he doesn’t want to be questioned, even when he has been caught in lie after lie.
“We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” Mr. Sessions said. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.” That is true. So the question is, what lives have been put at risk with all this reporting? And with impunity? Please save us the disingenuousness.
The free press is performing exactly as it needs to. And the proof of that is how seriously those who wish their actions remain undetectable consider the press to be their enemy.
Most reporters I have known take a naked threat such as this as further inspiration to dig even harder to expose the truth. News, as I have said, is what the powerful want to keep hidden.
Well spoken, Mr. Rather! Turkey had 240 journalists locked up behind bars as of May 12, 2017. Is this a path we wish to travel? Let us all hope that Mr. Rather is right, that the threat by Sessions and the Trump regime will spur the press to begin digging even deeper, for I have no doubt that there is much we do not know … and we need to know … we have a right to know.