The Media Today

DOJ seizure of Times reporter’s data raises press freedom concerns

June 8, 2018

President Trump’s Justice Department has made its first move to go after a journalist’s data. The action comes as part of a case against former Senate Intelligence Committee senior staffer James A. Wolfe, who has been charged with lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters.

Minutes before the indictment against Wolfe was unsealed last night, The New York Times reported that prosecutors had secretly seized years’ worth of the phone and email records of one of its reporters, Ali Watkins. “Mr. Wolfe’s case led to the first known instance of the Justice Department going after a reporter’s data under President Trump,” wrote the paper’s Adam Goldman, Nicholas Fandos, and Katie Benner.

Watkins, who had a previous romantic relationship with Wolfe, was notified in February that her records, covering a period during which she worked for BuzzFeed and Politico, had been seized. The communications between a journalist and a source aren’t protected by a federal shield law, but rules require authorities to take “all reasonable steps” to obtain information through alternative sources before targeting reporters’ information. It’s not clear whether those guidelines were followed in this case. “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, said in a statement.

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Trump and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, have made leak prosecutions a priority since shortly after taking office. In November, Sessions told the House Oversight Committee that his department was pursuing more than two dozen investigations into the leaking of classified information, adding that “it cannot be allowed to continue and we will do our best effort to make sure that it does not continue.” Wolfe, it should be noted, is charged only with making false statements, not with leaking classified information.

The press freedom issues raised by the case aren’t new, and they aren’t limited to the current administration. The Times notes that the seizure of Watkin’s data “suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama.” The previous administration faced criticism for a lack of transparency and ensnaring journalists in its leak prosecutions, and Obama’s Justice Department prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.

Below, more on the concerns raised by the government’s aggressive action.

  • Bipartisan issue: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “One of the most extreme attacks on press freedom under Obama was when DOJ obtained the phone records of various journalists to find their sources. The Right (and some on the left) went ballistic. Now the Trump DOJ is doing it. What will be their reaction?”
  • Press freedom concern: BuzzFeed EIC Ben Smith said in a statement, “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”
  • A new campaign: “When I’ve spoken to student in the first year of the Trump era I always reminded them that however idiotic Trump’s ‘Fake News’ tweets got, it still didn’t measure up to the Obama era assault on the press. I always also said Trump, ‘but give him time,’” wrote The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng. “Maybe time’s up.
  • A prescient warning: In December 2016, James Risen wrote, “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”


Other notable stories

  • Breaking this morning: CNN’s Anthony Bourdain has died. “His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller. His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter and family at this incredibly difficult time,” the network said in a statement.
  • Our entire Spring/Summer print issue is now online, so I want to highlight a few of my favorite pieces from the mag: Alexandria Neason makes a qualified case for the necessity of J-school (if you can afford it); Sarah Jones and Meg Dalton have important pieces on the under-discussed intersection of class and journalism; Steven Greenhouse looks at the reasons for unionization in newsrooms; and top editors share what they’re really looking for in new hires.
  • The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports that Geordie Greig, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, will replace Paul Dacre as editor of the Daily Mail in November. The move is notable, Waterson writes, because it puts a staunch remain figure in charge on one of Britain’s most pro-Brexit outlets.
  • BuzzFeed France is shutting down, according to AFP. The decision will reportedly cost 14 journalists their jobs. “We are taking steps to reconsider our operation in France given the uncertain path to growth in the French market,” a spokesperson for BuzzFeed told AFP. “We have begun a consultation process with BuzzFeed France and will follow up when we have more information to share.”
  • CNN’s Sarah Westwood and Pamela Brown report that the White House is poised to purge lower-level staffers from its communications office. Kelly Sadler, who left the comms shop this week, is just the first of many headed for the exits, they report.
  • Andrew Ross Sorkin, Kara Swisher, and Maria Bartiromo are the top journalist Twitter follows for CEOs, according to an analysis by Rational 360.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.