As we go to press, this week alone has seen Bloomberg News reporters accessing private client information, the Justice Department’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later seizure of records from The Associated Press, a Brett Arends column titled “The news media is even worse than you think” (WSJ MarketWatch, May 12), and Scott Pelley’s assertion that “We’re getting the big stories wrong, over and over again” in his Quinnipiac University Fred Friendly First Amendment Award acceptance speech on May 10.
First Amendment crusaders point fingers at the Justice Department for being too intrusive; press regulation proponents point to Bloomberg and the spread of misinformation after the Boston bombings as evidence that reporters should follow a government-mandated code of conduct; and Pelley wonders, “The president of the United States and the FBI were telling us what our bedrock principles should be? Aren’t we supposed to be watching them?” As if massive declines in print advertising and circulation, the migration of readers to digital platforms, lack of revenue, and the common need to accomplish more work with fewer employees weren’t enough, now newspapers find themselves in the position of defending their right to perform the investigative journalism in the first place.
It’s enough to make an editor’s head spin.
Upholding First Amendment rights must remain top priority for all news organizations, no matter how many other battles they may be fighting. Without investigative reporting — and the unfettered freedom to conduct it — this whole business comes apart at the seams. At stake are the protection of anonymous sources, access to public documents, and the public’s trust. Thankfully, as of press time for this issue, the Obama administration has announced that it will revive the Free Flow of Information Act, a media shield law originally proposed in 2009 that got swept under the rug when WikiLeaks began publishing archives of secret government documents.
Even if the Free Flow of Information Act is signed into law (as it ought to be), don’t think this is the last time we’ll fight this battle. Abuses of privilege, such as those committed by Bloomberg’s reporters, tend to leave a sour taste in the mouths of legislators. And the government’s argument that anonymous leaks of classified information can jeopardize the American people is a legitimate, if overused, concern. And reporting anonymous speculation on Reddit as facts in the Boston bombings coverage is lazy. It’s easy to see how Arends would categorize the media as “worse than we think.” Don’t give columnists an excuse to write those headlines.
We’re all understaffed and overworked, but sacrificing excellence now could mean moving the crosshairs directly over the freedom that we all rely on to do our jobs. In the current climate, news media must strive harder than ever to shine.