Is Reporting on State Secrets Like Stealing Justin Bieber's Diary?

A national security official in the Obama Administration makes that claim to defend the treatment of James Rosen.
More
bieber fullness.jpg
Reuters


Leak investigation, meet Bieber fever.

A national security official in the Obama Administration has emailed the good folks at Lawfare to defend the idea that Fox News correspondent James Rosen broke federal law while reporting.

Consider the analogy he or she uses:

The Department of Justice did not claim that the Fox News reporter in the Stephen Jin-Woo Kim case committed a crime merely by publishing classified information. According to the Government's filing... the reporter in question actively asked people with access to classified information to break the law by providing him classified information he could publish. He used false names and "dead drop" email accounts to do so. In other words, he wasn't someone to whom a whistleblower came to disclose information; he was actively asking people to violate the law, and enabling them to do so. Remember, there's no doubt that--assuming Mr. Kim is the guilty party--he violated the law if he disclosed properly classified information to a reporter.

Let's look at an analogy. If a reporter finds Justin Bieber's private diary on the street and publishes it, that's journalism (of a sort). But if she pays someone to break into Bieber's house to steal the diary, hasn't she has aided and abetted, or conspired in, a crime, even if her intent is to get material to publish? That's exactly what the Government says happened here--a reporter soliciting, and aiding and abetting criminal activity.

I'd like to fix the analogy so that it better reflects the ethical issues at play.

First off, the reporter doesn't pay someone to break into Bieber's house. Instead, he pays someone who is already permitted access to the diary, but sworn to secrecy -- an assistant who scans its pages into digital format for storage -- to leak. That alone would still be wrong, of course.

But we aren't through.

In the more accurate analogy, Bieber's job involves wielding extraordinary power on behalf of all Americans; everything he writes in his diary is work-for-hire and bankrolled by the American people, who own it; he has sporadically abused his authority in the past; and recent abuses were only discovered when his assistant passed US Weekly a series of diary pages detailing the pop star's illegal spying on Americans, his systematic torture of foreigners, and his security detail's lethal attack on paparazzi! Also, Bieber's job contract with Americans specifically notes that reporters are to help keep him accountable, and that no one can abridge their freedom to do so.

If all that were factored into the analogy, then it wouldn't be misleading to compare the behavior of Rosen to a reporter who paid someone to steal away pages from Justin Bieber's diary.

None of which is to say that Rosen's judgment comes off particularly well in this case...

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In