'The Greatest Enemy of Press Freedom in a Generation'

A New York Times reporter's accusation that the Obama administration engages in censorship raises questions about when journalism slides into advocacy.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Many reporters have contentious relationships with sources and with the government, but James Risen is in a class of his own. The veteran New York Times national-security reporter has scored some notable scoops the authorities didn't want him to—most notably about a failed CIA sabotage operation on Iran's nuclear program. When Risen got the story the first time, the government convinced The Times to quash it for national-security reasons. (He eventually published it in a book).

The CIA thought it knew who leaked the info, and it subpoenaed Risen to reveal his source. Demanding this of a journalist is technically legal, but is highly unusual and often frowned-upon. Risen refused to divulge the source and said he'd go to jail instead, setting up a long showdown with the Justice Department. Ultimately, Risen won. Under pressure, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed, ambiguously, "As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail." Risen testified, refusing to name his source, and the Justice Department still managed to convict Jeffrey Sterling for leaking. Everyone else lived happily ever after.

Or not. Risen has launched a one-man crusade against Holder and the Obama administration. Risen escalated that this week with a series of angry tweets replying to a speech Holder gave the National Press Club, in which the reporter blasted the current White House as the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation and accused the attorney general of shredding the First Amendment.
Critics called it a rant; Risen said it was merely a fact-check. That divided response shows the dangers for reporters debating press freedom. It's the one area that can turn otherwise impartial journalists into fierce advocates. While many in the media see that as an essential risk, it is no doubt a risk. It's also unclear whether the public is on the press' side, and how it might react to that advocacy.
Here are a few of Risen's tweets:

Wait a second—doesn't that break some of the basic rules for reporters at major news organizations? Always strive for fairness. Don't take a political position. Report and let the reader decide. But like all rules, they have an exception: Almost no position is too extreme when it comes to freedom of the press.

A Times spokesman emailed Politico, "The Times is not neutral on the issue of press freedom. We have vigorously opposed actions that inhibit legitimate reporting or that raise the specter of jail for reporters who are doing their jobs." The newspaper is not alone. NPR's ethics policy, while strictly proscribing political activities, names one special exception: "There may be cases where we can appropriately advocate for issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal 'shield law”). It also may be appropriate to donate money or time to organizations that advocate on such issues."

Whether or not Risen is substantively correct about the Obama administration being the worst on press freedom in a generation is a different question, and the answer is likely to vary based on who you ask. Besides political activism, reporters tend to stay away from stories in which they're directly implicated, since it tends to shape their perception. But Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan took the somewhat counterintuitive stand that this makes it more important for him to lead: "Because of his personal experiences, someone like James Risen has an obligation to speak out strongly on press rights."

In any case, Risen has a point. In addition to his own persecution, the Justice Department has pursued Fox reporter James Rosen. Ann Compton, who covered every president from Ford to Obama, also said this is the least transparent. While Holder has promised not to jail reporters, it seems to be a statement of personal preference, not Justice Department policy. He hasn't pulled back from trying to get reporters to divulge their sources—only from certain tactics—and he has presided over a massive crackdown on leaks inside the administration. There are of course good reasons why the government would wish to reduce leaking, but it's also an essential outlet for whistleblowers. Leaks lubricate the machinery of free press.

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.

Does the First Amendment Go Too Far?
First Amendment Center

That's a trend that ought to worry any reporter. At a time when trust in media is sinking, one would expect that the pattern would hold, barring any significant event, such as 9/11. One such event might be the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris; a solid 60 percent of Americans who were familiar with the attacks said the decision to publish cartoons of Muhammad was justified. But that's just one case, and there's clearly further convincing to do. It won't do journalists any good to be right if they don't have widespread sympathy from the public.

* This post originally identified Benjamin Wittes as a lawyer. We regret the error.