NPR news boss: ‘We won’t tolerate legal or personal attacks on journalists’

During last week’s confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Sessions whether he would affirm a Justice Department guideline not to prosecute journalists for doing their job if he is confirmed.

“Senator Klobuchar, I am not sure,” Sessions reponded. “I have not studied that, those regulations. I would note that when I was the United States Attorney, we knew, everybody knew, that you could not subpoena a witness or push them to be interviewed if they’re a member of the media, without approval at high levels of the Department of Justice. That was in the 1980s. So I do believe the Department of Justice does have sensitivity to this issue.”

That’s got NPR’s news boss declaring “we cannot tolerate legal and personal attacks on journalists for doing their jobs, as the president-elect did last week when a CNN reporter tried to ask him a question.

“Not you,” Trump told the reporter. “Your organization is terrible.”

In a letter to NPR’s news staff today, but clearly intended as an op-ed, the network’s senior vice president of news, acknowledged that journalism’s low standing among Republicans gives President-elect Donald Trump cover to attack reporters.

“It is up to journalists to rebuild that credibility,” Michael Oreskes said. “To demonstrate to conservatives that, as the vice president-elect says, our role is to hold all governments to account, regardless of party, ideology or personality.”

The Obama administration also repeatedly threatened journalists with prison under the guise of investigations into leaks that allegedly threatened national security. When I was senior managing editor of the Associated Press, the Obama administration secretly seized the wire service’s phone records in order to reveal AP’s sources. A New York Times reporter, James Risen, was kept under threat of jail for years to pressure him to reveal his sources. An FBI agent accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of possible espionage for basic reporting. NPR and other news organizations reported on these actions and protested vehemently. These were chilling threats to obstruct journalism and even criminalize it. I and many other journalists said so. Risen described the Obama administration as the most antagonistic to the press of any since Nixon.

As a result of our protests, the attorney general pledged that the Obama administration would never prosecute a journalist for doing her or his job. That commitment should be embraced by the incoming administration and written into law by the new congress.

Oreskes said the incoming administration should study up on why news organizations fought the Obama administration to win the Justice Department rules.

“The president-elect has an opportunity to separate his anger over specific coverage (which he is always free to express) from a commitment to fundamental American rights of free press and expression,” he said. “These aren’t partisan questions.”

Related: President and press: the roots of a feisty, complex relationship (MPR News)

Donald Trump’s Real Threat to the Press (Politico)