Meanwhile, the White House has been working on a whole slate of methods for bypassing reporters—or at least national political reporters. That means disseminating information directly to the public through videos, White House blogs, and Medium, and granting interviews to late-night shows, local journalists, and YouTube celebrities rather than to folks like, well, The New York Times' James Risen. President Obama has given notably few press conferences. Administrations since at least Nixon have been moving in this direction, but Obama has pressed beyond them, aided by technological advances that allow him to bypass traditional gatekeepers. The danger of the government speaking directly to people is that there's little place for checking facts, stress-testing claims, and pushing the conversation elsewhere. There's a reason that Voice of America, the external broadcast arm of the U.S. federal government, was long banned from distributing to American citizens.
As a journalist, I'm unsure how to process Risen's angry response to Holder. I find Sullivan's claim that Risen is obligated to speak out especially because he's involved tough to square with the rest of the professional catechism of journalism. In some ways, maintaining the freedom to report sits ahead of and outside all other obligations, and it's reasonable for reporters to fight for their rights. Risen's work and his response to Sullivan on how he'd fight are also compelling—“by continuing to do aggressive investigative reporting. That’s the best way to fight back.” He's also got good reason to be personally angry at Holder, but it's hard not to feel uneasy seeing personal anger erupt. How might it distort his impressions, however subconsciously, while reporting?
I tend to end up thinking that, Sullivan is right, and so is Risen. Safeguarding the utmost freedom to report is a paramount value. But does the public agree? Since most of us in the media are convinced of our rightness, we don't often stop to ask. Benjamin Wittes, a legal observer who's been critical of whistleblowers and of reporting on national-security matters, is predictably aghast at Risen's tweets:*
I’m amazed that the New York Times tolerates its reporters spewing this sort of factually challenged, ad hominem bile about people they notionally cover. Sure, Risen has free speech rights. And sure, he’s not just a reporter here. He’s also a litigant in a long-term struggle against the government. But still, I have to think the only reason the Times allows this sort of nonsense from him is that the positions he’s advocating happen to reflect the institutional positions of the press itself.
The press risks losing the support of the American public on questions like leaks. The First Amendment Center polls every year on views about how the media use their constitutional freedoms, and while most still think the media is on solid ground, that proportion has fallen. Meanwhile, the number of people who think the First Amendment gives too much freedom has more than doubled over the last two years, to a level not seen since just after the 9/11 attacks.