You’re reading Our View, one of two perspectives in Today’s Debate. For the Opposing View, read Biden’s policy complicates the ability to investigate those who leak. marked some exceptional American news reporting – riveting accounts of death and dying in hospital COVID-19 wards during the darkest pandemic hours and illuminating journalism about the inner workings of a plague.
Elsewhere, there were dogged investigations into scores of fake news sites (out of Macedonia, of all places) used to warp voter perceptions in the 2016 election. Other reporters uncovered heart-wrenching audio of immigrant children crying as they were pulled from their parents at the border or delved into source-obtained financial documents forthat showed how he paid only $750 in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017.
Journalists in a free society don’t have the power of a subpoena to obtain this sensitive material. Nor can they force themselves into hospital wards to observe the most intimate moments of human struggle. Their success relies on trust and professional integrity on both ends of the news process: collectingit to a sometimes skeptical public.
It’s a fragile process that can be easily damaged or disrupted bywho don’t care or think about the consequences of their actions. And it’s why the Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, abridging the freedom of the press. Tragically, its independence is too often shunted aside by presidents.
That’s why recent revelations about the Trump and. (Similarly, aggressive tactics were used by the Obama administration to plug leaks.) Shortly before its term ended, the Trump administration secretly obtained journalists’ phone records with CNN, The New York Times, and The . The Times reported that the continued to press for email logs for four of its reporters.
And finally, there was news Friday that the FBI began the process in April of obtaining a subpoena to track information aboutreaders who viewed an online article that ran in February. The news story was about a suspect in a child pornography case who two FBI agents serving a search warrant before killing himself. The agents said the reader’s information was necessary for a .
The good news is that after publicity surrounding the subpoena broke on Friday, theannounced Saturday it was dropping the matter. This unfolded despite President pledge last month that an intrusion on press freedom, such as seizing a reporter’s phone records, is “wrong, it’s simple, simply wrong. And I will not let that happen.”
That May remark finally translated into policy Saturday when Bidenstated that the Department of Justice will no longer issue subpoenas for reporter records in leak investigations. Though won a reprieve on the case, it’s concerning that the FBI was so quick to seek a subpoena in the first place.
Turning over to the government’s personal information about readers – while a different circumstance from revealing reporter sources – can undoubtedly violate readers’ trust in that publication and its news coverage. It’s why USA TODAY publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth called the FBI to move “a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
And in opposing the subpoena, lawyers for Gannett, which owns, cited Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote half a century ago, “A requirement that a publisher discloses the identity of those who buy his books, pamphlets or papers is indeed the beginning of surveillance of the press.”
The reality is that there is a constant tension between a government’s duty to investigate crimes or protect sensitive national security information and the constitutionally guaranteed right to an unfettered press. But there can be occasional avenues for bridging the divide through negotiation. There have been many cases where news organizations have declined to publish certain secrets after speaking with federal officials.
In recognition of that alternative, Justice Department policies call on investigators to first explore contacting media organizations to resolve requests. But the FBI didn’t follow that policy in thecase.
After four years of Trump and his relentless attacks on news organizations as “fake news,” a mantra adopted by autocrats across the globe as a means of squelching dissent, trust in traditional media is at an all-time low. Yet, the health of a democracy relies on accurate information – obtaining and disseminating it fairly.
When any administration now or in the future weighs whether to pursue one reporter’s source or a reader’s identifying information in a one-off fashion, it should err in favor of observing the First Amendment. Otherwise, it risks disassembling brick by brick a free press, a vital American institution.