In May, the Justice Department sent a letter to The Associated Press acknowledging that investigators had seized its phone records as part of a leak investigation. A week later it was revealed that investigators from Justice had obtained phone and email records for Fox News reporter James Rosen, who was named a “co-conspirator” in a separate leak investigation. In response to the widespread outcry, the Justice Department has revised its internal guidelines for obtaining information from the media. A proposed federal shield law would institutionalize these standards.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in the Bradley Manning trial argued (unsuccessfully) that Manning, who admitted to leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks (and who came out as a transgender woman named Chelsea after the trial), should be convicted of espionage and “aiding the enemy” because she knew that the documents she leaked, once public, would be accessed by Al Qaeda. Had that argument been sustained, it would have posed grave dangers to the mainstream press, according to some commentators.
Journalists can’t do their jobs if they can’t protect their sources, and they can’t do that if the government is monitoring their communication. This is why media organizations are fighting for a federal shield law. But journalists in the US need to be cognizant that allowing the government to develop a legal definition of journalism has tradeoffs and potential consequences, particularly in places around the world where the rule of law is weak and the separation of powers ill defined. A government definition of journalism in Egypt or Turkey, or even one put forward by the Security Council, could easily be used as a basis for licensing, a mechanism that would make it much easier to exclude critical voices from the public debate.
None of this means that journalists are indistinguishable from activists. In fact, the need for professional standards is even greater precisely because we are awash in information, and informed news consumers rely on media outlets they trust to sort it out for them.
But journalists need to understand that seeking to preserve their own privileged position is counterproductive in the current environment. Journalists need to fight to keep open an information space that allows them to operate and accept that within that space there will be all sorts of others using information for different purposes. It’s a messy, vibrant, volatile space, full of contradictions and shortcomings. But it’s a space that journalists need to defend.