Wick Communications

Big Brother is listening

In First Amendment on 17 May 2013 at 8:20 am
Is the government noting my phone calls at the Review?

Is the government noting my phone calls at the Review?

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the Justice Department’s snooping into the phone calls of Associated Press reporters and editors.

In short, Justice announced this week that it had gathered the phone records of 20 telephone lines belonging to AP and its reporters in several offices. The sweep covered a couple of months and the AP says more than 100 reporters may have used those phones over the period in question. Dozens of news organizations have lodged complaint, crying that the government action will have a chilling effect on potential sources who won’t want their whistleblowing noticed by government minders. Justice counters that the surveillance was a matter of national security and that it exhausted other means of getting the information it was after. (It is widely believed that the snoops were trying to find the AP’s source for a May 2012 leak that tipped the news agency to a spy’s role in thwarting a bombing attempt.)

For what it’s worth, Justice failed to follow it’s own regulations. It did not tell the AP it had been the subject of the search. And the sweeping nature of the records went beyond the kind of targeted approach that might be expected.

So now come renewed calls for a reporter shield law. Earlier this week, New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer announced he would reintroduce his shield law, which stalled on the floor of the Senate in 2009. President Barack Obama seems to see the light this time as well. …

Me? I remain on the fence. I have boiled down my concerns to versions of these three:

We’re already protected. See U.S. Constitution, First Amendment. While it’s not fully articulated, freedom of the press is stipulated in one of our most hallowed documents.

Who is a journalist? Congress would have to define “reporter” to write a reporter shield law and I have no idea how lawmakers would do that. Everyone with a cell phone is effectively a potential reporter. Is it a matter of employment? Does it depend on a history of reporting? Go ahead; try to define it yourself.

What the government grants, the government can take away. This is the “Badges? We don’t need any stinking badges” argument. I am uncomfortable with the concept that government gets to say whether I’m a real journalist and therefore entitled to extraordinary legal protections.

My guess is this kerfuffle, while enraging me and many, many people in our business, won’t resonate for long. I don’t think most Americans think we need special legal protection – even if it helped us in our watchdog function.

Let me know what you think.



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