It’s OK for journalists to stand for something

Tomorrow, I’m on the weekly roundtable on MPR News with Kerri Miller in which the O-word — objectivity– made its way into the conversation among the panel of journalists.

We’ve already taped the segment, which is a shame because we missed out on talking about this tweet from New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen, who was the target of the administration’s crackdown on leaks to the watchdog media, and who broke the story about the wireless wiretapping program operated by the National Security Agency.

“Although the wording of the Risen tweets was outside the tacitly accepted norm for Times reporters on social media,” The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan wrote today, “The Times declined to criticize them and issued a statement in his support.”

I’d take it a step further. Because of his personal experiences, someone like James Risen has an obligation to speak out strongly on press rights. And I think more journalists ought to join him in that passion.

In an email, Mr. Risen said he took to Twitter “to respond to Holder’s speech and comments, as well as other statements recently both by him and more generally by the D.O.J., in which they have said that they believe the way they handled my case was a model for the future for the Department of Justice. Holder also said he thinks they have handled cases involving whistle-blowers and leaks appropriately.”

That the issue is being discussed in journalists’ circles at all is a bit frightening. That the public editor thinks someone has more of an obligation to defend press freedom after attaining a certain status even more so.

Sometimes, journalists take this “objectivity” thing a little too seriously (a subject we also talk about tomorrow).

It’s OK for journalists to stand for something, and standing against being thrown in prison because you exposed the lies of government shouldn’t send anyone to clutch their beads.

But it does. In this case, Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who made a series of tweets today after Sullivan’s defiance.

(Sullivan and Cohen sparred on the issue, documented here by Politico)

“Simply because we have the ability to do certain things, should we?” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech yesterday. “I think members of the press have to ask that same question. Simply because you have the ability to, because of a leaker or a source of information that you have, you have the ability to expose that to the public, should you? It is for you to decide. It is not for the government to decide. But it is for you to decide.”

“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,” writes Benjamin Wittes, the Brookings Institution expert on national security and law. “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.”

Let’s certainly hope so.

Related: Yes, Eric Holder Does Do the Intelligence Community’s Bidding in Leak Prosecutions (emptywheel).

  • When Eric Holder says:

    “Simply because you have the ability to, because of a leaker or a source of information that you have, you have the ability to expose that to the public, should you?”

    What I hear:

    “American citizens don’t need to know we’re recording all of their phone calls and reading all of their emails. Shut up!”

    It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t think the government is the best judge about what the public should or should not know.