It wasn’t a fight they thought they would have to wage here.
Since its establishment by a group of American correspondents in 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists has focused on defending the rights of its counterparts abroad, naming and shaming the most egregious offenses against press freedom around the world. Incarcerations in Iran. Crackdowns in China. Retaliations in Russia. Slayings in Syria.
But now, for the first time in its history, the CPJ said it felt compelled to commission a special report on its home country: The United States.
It’s an irony that is not lost on Joel Simon, the organization’s executive director. But, as he told an audience at the New America Foundation last Thursday, the recent actions taken by the Obama administration—from its aggressive pursuit of leakers to the campaign-like media relations firewall it erected to control the information that comes out of government agencies—led them to conclude that there had been a fundamental, chilling shift in the ability of journalists in this country to report the news. And that now was the time to confront it.
Which is exactly what their blistering new 27-page report, The Obama Administration and the Press, does. Written and reported largely by veteran Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, Jr., the analysis looks at the troubling developments that have occurred under the man who pledged to create the most transparent administration in history.
For the first time in its history, the CPJ said it felt compelled to commission a special report on their home country: The United States.
Much of the research details actions and policies of the Obama administration that have already been reported. The analysis attributes some of these offenses, including the administration’s record number of prosecutions against government sources under the 1917 Espionage Act, to a post-9/11 intelligence community that successfully pressured Obama to take unprecedented actions to stem national security leaks.
But the investigation also explores how the White House itself has undermined the media’s ability to hold the government accountable. In an attempt to circumvent scrutiny, the report argues, the administration has restricted press access to sources and data across government agencies. Instead, it employs a regime of selective transparency, routing even the most routine requests through guarded media relations staff or referring reporters to administration-generated websites and social media feeds.
Taken together, said Simon, the report paints a portrait of a “systematic effort to marginalize and undermine the work of the press.”
The concurrent trends hit at the core of the Fourth Estate: a reporter’s sources. Dozens of active and respected journalists went on record in the report to explain the chilling effect of these policies on their ability to find and protect the government sources they rely on. The insiders who once felt comfortable explaining, defending, and sometimes blowing the whistle on government activities are now more hesitant than ever to talk to the press, the reporters stressed. The New York Times’ Scott Shane, for example, told Downie that the administration’s heavy-handed leaks prosecutions have many of his sources “scared to death.” They’re afraid of revealing anything that might fall in the gray area between classified and unclassified, he said.
The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who also spoke alongside Simon and Downie, explained that leaks investigations and surveillance programs have made it increasingly difficult for reporters to guarantee anonymity to their sources. He said he and his colleagues have taken even routine communications with their government sources out of official channels. In the interest of protecting their records, he said, they have been taking measures such as arranging secret face-to-face interviews or keeping story notes off of devices that connect to the Internet.
The Obama administration responded by stating that these types of complaints are part of the “natural tension” between any presidency and the press, and that, according to Press Secretary Jay Carney, “the idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts.” Others in the administration also enumerated some of the ways that the administration has held up its commitment to transparency.
Despite this somewhat defensive response, Downie and Simon both said they will continue to challenge the administration until the White House acknowledges that these are real problems.
The CPJ has already sent a letter detailing requested reforms and requesting a meeting with the administration. And, Downie and Simon said, they’re hoping to appeal to the president’s more pragmatic side on issues that go to the heart of his legacy. If he wants to be able to push other countries to have a free and open government, he has to have the leverage of saying he maintains one at home. If he says he wants to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms, he has to stop using national security as a pretext for prosecuting legitimate whistleblowers and obstructing information that should be subject to public debate. And if he wants to have the most transparent administration in history, there are a lot of journalists who think he has more work to do.
If [Obama] wants to be able to push other countries to have a free an open government, he has to have the leverage of saying he maintains one at home.
But, Downie acknowledged, the press may have lost some leverage. As echo chamber media grows, and politicians can reach voters without having to go through mainstream media, the White House simply needs the media less than it used to. As Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS anchor and reporter told Downie, “When I’m asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s the one in office now. Every administration learns from the previous administration.”
Downie said his best hope is to shame the President himself with this report. “Otherwise, the lesson for the next administration will be ‘let’s see how much more sophisticated we can be at keeping the press at bay.’”
It’s a battle the press continues to wage. Just last week, a federal court of appeals declined an appeal by New York Times investigative journalist James Risen, who was fighting a lower court ruling that orders him to testify in the trial of a former CIA employee charged with leaking classified information to him.
For many reporters, the case represents a major test of their ability to use confidential sources to keep the government accountable, including on matters of national security. Risen told The New York Times’ public editor last week that he plans to take his case to the Supreme Court, and said that if it were necessary he would go to jail rather than testify against his alleged source.
“I’m determined to keep fighting,” he said.