War on journalism: Government keeps targeting reporters and their sources

The United States has detained journalists—and even their associates—over materials leaked by Edward Snowden.

The United States has detained journalists—and even their associates—over materials leaked by Edward Snowden.

photo courtesy of Laura Poitras/Praxis FIlms

“The Obama administration has clearly declared war on the press. It's declared war on investigative journalists, our sources.” That was Michael Hastings' warning to viewers of the cable-news show The Young Turks not long ago.

What's the old saying? “Just because you're paranoid …”

It appears drugs and mental-health issues contributed to Hastings' death, at age 33, in a car crash in Los Angeles in June. But as explored in this week's Cover Story, “Michael Hasting’s dangerous mind,” by Gene Maddaus, that doesn't mean Hastings wasn't right to be worried.

Journalists and their sources, particularly those involved in important national-security stories, as Hastings was, have been targets of government surveillance and prosecution lately, to an extent unprecedented a few years ago.

A few examples: In August, David Miranda was detained for questioning in a British airport, per that country's anti-terrorism laws. Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the independent journalist who received material from Edward Snowden and wrote stories this year about the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance of American citizens.

In May of this year, the Associated Press learned that the U.S. Department of Justice has secretly collected two months of telephone records on 20 phone lines inside AP offices, as part of an aggressive leak investigation. The AP's CEO, Gary Pruitt, said the records dragnet hauled in information on reporters' activity that “the government has no conceivable right to know.”

“The DOJ's actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” Pruitt told the National Press Club in June. (Sacramento readers may remember that Pruitt was, for many years, CEO of The McClatchy Company, publisher of The Sacramento Bee.)

Shortly after the AP revelation, Fox News found out that its correspondent, James Rosen, had been named as a possible “criminal co-conspirator” by the DOJ, and issued a warrant to search his emails. All this was to ferret Rosen's source in the U.S. Department of State, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who has been indicted under the U.S. Espionage Act.

Between its passage in 1917 and the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency in 2009, the Espionage Act had been used just three times to prosecute those accused of leaking classified information to the media.

Since Obama took office, his administration has invoked the Espionage Act seven times to prosecute sources who gave classified information to journalists. This includes Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) and Snowden, who are variously described as whistle-blowers or criminals in the press.

And in this month's Harper's Magazine, local writer William T. Vollmann recounted the uncovering of his own FBI file; the organization spied on him extensively and, at one point, even considered him a Unabomber suspect.

There has been some pushback against what critics call the criminalization of investigative reporting. Legislation for a federal “shield law” has been revived in the U.S. Congress, to prevent journalists from being prosecuted for protecting their sources. But the proposal bogged down when California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced amendments to restrict the law's protections to people who are “really journalists,” salaried employees and those with certain “professional qualifications,” like regular publication with a journalistic “entity.”

This notion of defining “real” journalists, and thus creating a class of government-approved reporters, has been controversial. The category would seem to exclude a great many bloggers and citizen journalists, freelance and independent reporters, and whole groups of people engaged in new, perhaps not yet known, forms of enterprise reporting. The ones New York Times media writer David Carr calls, “an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media.”

Hastings was a threat, too, in that he argued for journalists to stop playing the insiders' game, stop trading compliance for access.

“We've been too easygoing with these guys. We've let them tell us what to print and what not to print,” he said. If the government is going to declare war on journalism, then journalism should “say back to the government, ‘We declare war on you.'” That's part of what made him dangerous.