OPINION – It’s not easy being a reporter.
You work lousy hours, often must witness some of life’s most gruesome tragedies, and people don’t usually like you very much.
And, sometimes, the authorities do some nasty things to you.
The Associated Press, the worldwide news-gathering agency that provides so much of the content you find in your daily newspaper, is reeling this week from a Justice Department revelation that it seized a massive number of phone records from the news organization.
According to an AP news report, the records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt called the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news. He added that the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a roadmap to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” Pruitt said.
Despite all of the criticism of the news media these days, a lot of it justified, this seizure is an egregious invasion of the rights of privacy that are so necessary to ensuring that news-gathering organizations — whether the AP or your local news outlet — remains free and independent in its efforts as the watchdog of the community.
Look, I can agree that a lot of the media is driven today by nonsensical pop culture idolatry and caving to the demands of advertisers who control the purse strings.
I’ve seen publishers interfere with the integrity of the product, whether they insist that some lame PR stunt make it into the pages because the advertiser’s contract is up for renewal or they find a way to legitimize a piece of puffery into a “news” story.
I don’t know how many times I heard somebody spit out: “All you want to do is sell newspapers.”
My response was always: “Of course. McDonald’s sells hamburgers, GM sells cars, we sell newspapers.”
It didn’t, in my judgment, mean we compromised the integrity of the product, just that we were looking for ways to disseminate the news in a cogent, honest manner, free from fear or favor.
Now, however, we see the Justice Department stealing phone records without explanation or justification.
I can see no way to legitimize the theft, and theft it surely is.
It represents the theft of truth, liberty, and freedom as expressed in the First Amendment. It represents a danger of oppression of an industry charged with the sacred right of seeking the truth and it represents the repression of the rights to an unfettered press.
I used to bristle, of course, at blanket criticism of “the media,” a real knee-jerk reaction that both the left and right have tried to use to their advantage. However, I came to realize that the public perception of the media embraces a much wider umbrella that includes everything from the grocery store tabloids to the TMZ or E! networks on television, and not only the standard bearers of good, solid journalism like the New York Times, Washington Post, and others who have built a reputation for honesty and objectivity over decades.
The AP has a unique place in all of this.
It is neither an instrument of public opinion or editorial position. It is simply a news-gathering outfit that has reporters placed in key cities around the globe to serve up the news of the world as you sip your morning cup of coffee.
It takes no political sides, does not campaign either way. It simply brings you the news, whether it is a box score from last night’s Angels’ game or a speech given by the leader of some Third World nation.
This seizure of phone records is connected, some believe, to a piece the AP published on May 7, 2012 about a CIA operation that stopped an al-Qaida plot to place an explosive on an airplane headed for the United States.
A major story?
The sources for that story?
That’s what the Justice Department is trying to discern, claiming that the information was a potential security breach.
Perhaps, but there is a greater need for the public’s right to know about such things. There are always layers of secrecy that governments establish, some with good reason, others with no reason. It is the news media’s responsibility, however, to ensure that its government operates with transparency, integrity, and honor. My take on it was always that as concerned and even as outraged I would sometimes become over things we had learned, I was more concerned and outraged about the things government was doing under the guise of “national security,” a handy catch-all that is usually meaningless and trotted out to cover up the sins of elected leaders.
Reporters have, over the years, dug in and investigated presidents, congressmen, government agencies, government programs, and uncovered some fairly significant events, including one that toppled the criminal Presidency of Richard Nixon.
Not once, however, has the foundation of this nation been even shaken.
In fact, the nation is strengthened by the fact that it can stand up to scrutiny.
This seizure of AP phone records?
It is an abuse of power by a government agency that is supposed to be about justice, not snooping into the efforts of a news agency dedicated to the public welfare.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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