The commotion swirling around Washington recently surrounding the Justice Department secretly obtaining journalists’ phone records raises some serious questions, and not just for those in the news business.
The issue gained attention when the Justice Department obtained the phone records of Associated Press journalists as part of a leak investigation.
There are a couple of competing interests here.
First, is the value of reporters being able to use confidential sources as they investigate a story.
Second, is the importance of being able to identify government officials who leak secret information.
Some might ask why journalists need to use confidential sources.
This may come as a shock to some people outside the business, but the fact is, not everyone is enthusiastic about talking to journalists. Some, in fact, are reluctant, reticent, or just plain disinclined to chat with members of the media.
The more sensitive the subject is, the more reluctant some sources are to discuss it.
Even if a source is privy to information he believes the public should know, he may be unwilling to talk about it.
There are good reasons for this.
Often, negative information may involve people in positions of power, either in the private sector or in government.
A source may have legitimate concerns for his or his family’s safety if he risks passing information on to the media.
It may be less of an issue later in the process, but early on, journalists and sources may be vulnerable if they start poking their proboscises into potential hornets’ nests. The hornets may not like it, and they may retaliate in a swift and severe manner.
That may be enough to make any source edgy.
And yet, there are important stories out there waiting to be told; stories that have far-reaching implications for the public.
In order to report these stories, a journalist needs to talk to someone who has the information.
It is possible that those at the top of the food chain may be aware of damaging information, but they may be the ones who have the most reason to prevent the public from finding out about it.
There are times, therefore, when those at lower levels in organizations may prove to be better sources.
If a journalist allows a source to remain anonymous, this may convince the source to share what he knows, providing building blocks that become part of a larger investigation, and, perhaps, eventually a news story.
Well, that relationship goes right out the window if the Justice Department or other government agency is granted broad authority to obtain journalists’ phone records and other information that may expose confidential sources.
If journalists can’t get access to information, the government can carry on its secret operations with little fear of discovery, and that should be a concern for all citizens.
In times of crisis, such as after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, government is quick to impose emergency measures in the interest of national security.
There may be reasons for this, but we should not allow these tragedies to become an excuse for a broad expansion of governmental power.
There should always be checks and balances, and there should be legitimate processes to follow.
The recent misadventures in the Justice Department have re-awakened interest in federal media shield legislation.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has said he will re-introduce the “Free Flow of Information Act.” He initially proposed the legislation in 2009, but although it received committee approval, it never came to a vote.
The White House has reportedly encouraged Schumer to re-introduce the bill.
The proposed legislation would protect journalists from having to testify about their confidential sources unless all other avenues have been exhausted and exposure is in the public interest.
It would also include a balance between the value of the news, and the value of exposing the source.
Shield laws protect not just journalists and sources, but all citizens.
It seems prudent to ask if liberties taken by government in the name of national security make us more secure or less.
If the only information the public receives is that which those in power want the public to know, we may all be in trouble.
Journalists have the ability to help hold those in power accountable, but they can only do so if they have access to information, and this includes information those in power may not want the public to see.