As a former journalist who spent 20 years in the newsroom of a daily paper, I have watched with horror the news about the Justice Department snooping into the Associated Press’s records and conducting surveillance on Fox News correspondent James Rosen.
For defenders of a free press, it’s creepy, like finding Gollum has been poking around in your underwear drawer.
Watchdog journalism – reporting that keeps a sharp eye on government and large organizations – is a bedrock principle for those in the field, and the First Amendment is supposed to give media the freedom to do just that.
Here’s what journalism.org, a project of the Pew Research Center, has to say about it:
Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it.
But financially speaking, it’s been a tough few years for watchdog journalists, particularly newspapers (aka “legacy media”). Fewer reporters and editors mean fewer investigative stories, fewer eyes on the government. (I was among many journalists laid off in the past few years.)
Has the public – not to mention the Justice Department! – forgotten the function and importance of the free press? Is the government a little too eager to put an unconstitutional leash on the wounded watchdog?
Watch out – it still bites.
The New York Times, well known for its liberal leanings, is not impressed with the goings-on:
With the decision to label a Fox News television reporter a possible “co-conspirator” in a criminal investigation of a news leak, the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news. …
The Rosen case follows other signs that the administration has gone overboard in its zeal to find and muzzle insiders.
The Times’ editorial board may deplore Fox News, but when a Fox reporter is investigated by the government, apparently for doing his job as a journalist, the Times (among others) stands in support of journalistic freedom.
The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a highly respected association and resource for journalists, summed it up well on its news blog:
“This is what police states do, not governments of the people,” IRE Board President David Cay Johnston said.
“Journalists have a duty to watchdog the government and hold it accountable without surveillance or other interference,” Johnston said.