NEWS OF the beheading death of American journalist James W. Foley, at the hands of the terrorists of ISIS, was quickly followed by President Obama’s truly heartfelt reaction — as close to outright explosive passion as we’ve seen from the sang-froid wielder in chief. His defense of Foley as a journalist in open of the world’s grimmest places held nothing back:
“He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away,” Obama said Wednesday from his vacation location in Edgartown, Mass. “He was taken hostage nearly two years ago in Syria, and he was courageously reporting at the time on the conflict there.
“Jim was taken from us in an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world. ... The future is shaped by people like James Foley.”
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The president was equally impassioned on Aug. 14 when he spoke out against the brief arrest of Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, reporters held and roughed up by police in Ferguson, Mo., as they covered the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown.
But ironically enough, the president’s full-throated praise of Foley and the Ferguson reporters (and by direct extension their profession) comes amid concerns and criticism of a rising chorus of journalists and media advocates, who call the Obama administration one of the most secretive, punitive, risk-averse administrations in American history.
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ONE IN particular. James Risen, has been a serious burr under the presidential saddle, and not just Obama’s. Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and a celebrated author on the workings of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote “State of War,” a best-selling 2006 book that provided details into Merlin, a failed Bush #43-era CIA operation to send faulty nuclear bomb blueprints to the Iranian government, monkey-wrenching the regime’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Federal prosecutors allege that Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former CIA operations officer in Iran, leaked classified information about Merlin to Risen, who used the information in his book. Prosecutors want Risen to reveal his sources under oath. Standing foursquare on his First Amendment protections, Risen has refused; he now faces jail time as a result.
The Obama administration claims that Sterling, who was indicted in December 2010, violated the federal Espionage Act. His trial date awaits.
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“Risen has taken his case to court, where a Federal district judge threw out the subpoena against him,” writes “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman, in an Aug. 14 column on the Transcend.org Web site.
Risen’s petition for certiorari, sent to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 9 (before SCOTUS’ rebuff), gives you a sense of what’s at stake:
“The Department of Justice has itself acknowledged that ‘the prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter’s responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues.’ 28 C.F.R. § 50.10 (2013). This case tests that principle. The petition raises important questions about the existence and scope of a qualified reporter’s privilege not to testify about the identity of confidential source(s) in a criminal trial.
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But he put in language plainer than that. In an interview with Maureen Dowd, published Sunday in The New York Times, Risen answered a hypothetical question, or tried to: “How can [Obama] use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistle-blowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his C.I.A. chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?”
“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
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RISEN IS hardly the only one concerned. On July 28, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released an exhaustive survey of lawyers and journalists versed in national security and intelligence matters. They lament, among other things, “the effects of large-scale electronic surveillance on the practice of journalism and law,” and its impact on the way journalists do their work, “changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes.”
It even extends to how the government treats its own. Human Rights Watch reported in a July 28 piece of a government program that’s straight outta McCarthy:
From the report summary: “For much of its history, the United States has held itself out as a model of freedom, democracy, and open, accountable government. Freedoms of expression and association, as well as rights to a fair trial, are protected by the Constitution, and US officials speak with pride of the freedom of the media to report on matters of public concern and hold government to account for its actions. Yet, as this report documents, today those freedoms are very much under threat due to the government’s own policies concerning secrecy, leak prevention, and officials’ contact with the media, combined with large-scale surveillance programs. If the US fails to address these concerns promptly and effectively, it could do serious, long-term damage to the fabric of democracy in the country.”
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COMING ON the heels of the Foley murder and the incident in Ferguson, which led to at least two journalists being briefly arrested in the United States for the crime of doing their job, Obama’s comments are welcome gestures, and frankly expected. But they’re a stark departure from the increasingly combative tone experienced by journalists covering the pivotal workings of the administration.
A certain amount of conflict between journalists and the state isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. To one degree or another, a central objective of government — any government — is to keep people in the dark about things they need to know.
That’s what investigative journalism pushes back against, here and around the world. If the president means what he says, it’s time to align the anodyne presidential rhetoric of journalism as practiced in Iraq and Ferguson — and any other combat zone — with a change in the more bitterly adversarial aspects of his White House’s relationship with the fourth estate, and policy that respects the work of and the need for journalists, and the vitality of the First Amendment for which they stand.
Image credits: Obama top: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images. Obama (2): via The Daily Caller. Risen: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images, via The New York Times. Human Rights Watch logo: © 2014 Human Rights Watch. McCarthy: unknown, possibly U.S. Government photo (public domain).