The Media Today

The media today: James Risen’s press freedom battles with Bush, Obama, and The New York Times

January 3, 2018

In a story that touches on recent media history and current concerns about government leak investigations, longtime New York Times reporter James Risen has a personal account of his struggles to publish significant stories involving national security, and how both the government and top editors at The New York Times suppressed that reporting.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, now with The Intercept, spent seven years battling attempts by the Bush and Obama administrations to force him to reveal confidential sources, and Risen writes about the impact of those conflicts. The most revealing sections of the 15,000-word piece, however, cover the internal dynamics of the Times’s newsroom, as Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau pushed editors to publish their reporting on the Bush administration warrantless wiretapping program. Risen interviews several of his former editors, including Bill Keller, Howell Raines, and Jill Abramson, providing a window into the frenzied, anxious period following the September 11 attacks and the early years of the Iraq War.

ICYMI: Too many people are making the same typo

Some of this territory has been covered before, but Risen’s story is both a fascinating look at how national security journalism sausage gets made and a valuable piece of media history covering a recent era of which we don’t yet have a detailed, complete understanding.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Toward the end of his piece, Risen offers a mixed review of his battle with the government and his editors: “I believe my willingness to fight the government for seven years may make prosecutors less eager to force other reporters to testify about their sources. At the same time, the Obama administration used my case to destroy the legal underpinnings of the reporter’s privilege in the 4th Circuit, which means that if the government does decide to go after more reporters, those reporters will have fewer legal protections in Virginia and Maryland, home to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA, and thus the jurisdiction where many national security leak investigations will be conducted,” he writes. “That will make it easier for Donald Trump and the presidents who come after him to conduct an even more draconian assault on press freedom in the United States.”

ICYMI: Former New York Times employees are angry

Below, more on Risen’s battles, the press freedom legacy of Bush and Obama, and the current state of play.

  • If Trump cracks down on press freedoms, blame Obama: That was Risen’s message in a New York Times op-ed a year ago.
  • From the archives: CJR columnist Joel Simon took a negative view of President Obama’s press freedom legacy.
  • In his own words: In a companion podcast for the piece, Risen spoke with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill about his career and battles to get his reporting published.
  • 27 investigations: In November, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said his Justice Department was conducting 27 investigations into classified leaks of information, a sharp increase over the average year in the Obama administration.
  • Of Trump and the Times: CNN’s Brian Stelter looks at the current president’s love-hate relationship with the paper of record.


Other notable stories, including a handful of the best from over the new year’s break

  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan reflects on issues of public trust in the media after returning to her old stomping grounds in New York state. “On the whole, the people I talked to may not have liked the media, but—with exceptions—they seemed to find it at least somewhat credible, and their critiques were more nuanced than cries of ‘fake news,’” she writes.
  • BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman laments, “I helped popularize the term ‘fake news’ and now I cringe every time I hear it.
  • A.G. Sulzberger took over as Publisher of The New York Times on January 1. Yesterday, he addressed readers directly in an editorial, promising, “The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness—because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor—because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.”
  • The New York Times’s Emily Steel reports that Vice Media placed its president and its chief digital officer on leave after sexual harassment allegations against them were reported by the Times.
  • The New York Times Magazine’s “The Lives They Lived” issue was, as always, one of my favorite reads of the year.
Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.