In a news conference Thursday addressing the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown and resulting unrest in Ferguson, MO, President Barack Obama criticized the arrests of two reporters there on Wednesday night.
“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” Obama said in a news conference televised from Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s vacationing. On Wednesday, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested when working out of a McDonald’s in Ferguson. After being taken to the Ferguson Police Department, both were quickly released.
Just minutes after the president finished his remarks, a coalition of journalism organizations at the National Press Club in Washington began a news conference condemning the Obama administration’s attempt to compel James Risen, a New York Times reporter, to identify a confidential source. The menagerie of groups this morning presented a petition, signed by more than 125,000 people, calling on the Justice Department to end its six-year effort to force Risen to testify against his source.
In June, the US Supreme Court turned down a last-ditch appeal from Risen, removing the final legal barrier for federal prosecutors who want him to take the stand.
The coincidental timing puts a spotlight on a White House that has repeatedly defended its claim as the most transparent administration in history. In the past five years, however, the Obama administration has been decried repeatedly for both its secrecy and its aggression toward the press. What’s more, it has pursued more criminal leak investigations than every previous White House combined.
As for Risen, the Pulitzer Prize winner risks jail time if he does not reveal the identity of his source, who provided information for a chapter of Risen’s 2006 book, State of War. The reporter and several other veteran journalists are slated to speak at the National Press Club this afternoon.
“As Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama classified more and more of the government’s actions over the last 14 years, denying the public critical information to judge how its democracy is faring, it has fallen to reporters like Risen to keep Americans informed and to question whether a gigantic government in the shadows is really even a good idea,” longtime Washington Post reporter Dana Priest said in a statement before Thursday’s news conference. “We will all be worse off if this case proceeds.”David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: journalist safety, Obama administration, press freedom, Washington, White House