Thursday, May 30, 2013

Freedom of the Press

In a column published in USA Today, Jonathan Turley is feeling a little cranky about the Justice Department investigating reporters; he even calls, in the headline, for the firing of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Turley is a very smart, highly educated man. This doesn't stop him from being wrong. Not completely wrong, I'll admit; but he is arguably incorrect in the larger sense here.

Turley's point, at its center, is that Holder approved the search of email and phone records for Fox "News" reporter James Rosen and (Turley mentions in passing) the Associated Press. Turley holds to the idea that a "free press," as delineated in the Constitution, is vital.

And he does make a point. It was a free press that showed Nixon as the abusive, power-hungry paranoid that he was. It is a free press that turns up scandals and crimes that are otherwise hidden from sight.

But what Turley is missing is that, just like free speech, a free press has limits. Or, to be more accurate, it has consequences: Turley and the AP both have the right to report on whatever they find, but they both have to take responsibility for any repercussions that might occur due to their reporting.

See, with Fox, the Justice Department got a search warrant from a federal judge, which gave them the opportunity to thumb through Rosen's phone records and email. And all because Rosen had reported on missile tests in North Korea; these tests were conducted as a response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of North Korea's bat-shit insane leader's nuclear aspirations. And Rosen learned all this from leaks of classified information which came from Stephen Kim, who has since been fired from the State Department.

North Korea is a notoriously paranoid and insular country, and the classified leaks allowed the North Koreans to cut off one of our few sources of intelligence from inside their borders.

The Associated Press story is a little more complicated, mostly because of the overblown hyperbole used by the AP in defense of their people. The AP published a story about a foiled bomb plot, and their story revealed the identity of a Saudi spy who'd been inserted into notoriously terrorist-friendly Yemen.

The Justice Department once again got a search warrant, as they should, and they used it to subpoena phone records from an editor and six reporters (including the Washington bureau chief, Sally Buzbee). Those seven people, though, used phones out in the common area of the AP news room which were used by every reporter who passed through the bureau; this allowed AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll to claim that the news service is "shocked" by what happened, and that the Justice Department cast a "very broad net" which pulled in AP operations "that have, as far as I know, no particular connection to the story that they seem to be investigating."

Sorry, lady, that's the way investigation works. To pull out the gold nuggets, sometimes you have to pan through a lot of pebbles. You'd probably know this if the AP did any actual investigation these days, instead of just stenography of other people's talking points.

Thanks to these two stories, we've lost access to one of the few available sources of information on the nuclear aspirations of a raving madman, and to a spy embedded in a terrorist cell.

And that's the real scandal.

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