President Barack Obama’s conciliatory gesture toward the press this week — a review of Justice Department investigations involving journalists — struck some national security reporters as closing the door after the sources have already bolted.
In announcing the review in his speech Thursday, the president said he was “troubled” that recent investigations, which involved the extensive tracking of the Fox News reporter James Rosen and the seizing of phone records at The Associated Press, “may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”
Journalists say that chill has already set in. Jeremy Scahill, who writes about national security for The Nation, said that some sources who used to agree to encrypted chats and off-the-record conversations have recently stopped feeling comfortable with these terms.
“At times it seems that being a Luddite may be the safest way to do serious national security reporting in a climate where there appears to be an intensifying war on serious journalism,” Scahill wrote in an email.
Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired.com’s Danger Room blog, said that sources had told him to stay away in the recent climate of leak prosecutions.
“There’s one source I have to run into ‘by accident’ at some public function who before I could just contact directly,” Shachtman said.
James Bamford, author of the 1983 best-seller “The Puzzle Palace” about the National Security Agency, said these latest leak cases make it increasingly difficult to establish new source relationships and that affects his reporting overall.
“It’s important to get this information out there that doesn’t come through a press release, through the front door of the White House or the Pentagon,” Bamford said. “Far more information comes through a side door or a back door.”
Many reporters found themselves spooked by the extent of the government’s investigation of Rosen, Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent. This week, The Washington Post reported on a 36-page affidavit which detailed just how much information the government had been gathering about conversations between an unnamed reporter, who turned out to be Rosen, and Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a government employee.
The affidavit, a request for emails from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, provided minute-by-minute details about what time both men came and left the State Department and the length of their phone conversations down to the second and also took the unusual step of labeling the reporter a potential “co-conspirator” in the leak of classified information about North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a memo to his staff this week, Roger Ailes, the chief executive of Fox News, said, “We reject the government’s efforts to criminalize the pursuit of investigative journalism and falsely characterize a Fox News reporter to a federal judge as a ‘co-conspirator’ in a crime,” and that “we will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth.”
Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University and a writer for Quartz, said that in the 30 years he has lived on and off in Washington, he has never found journalists to be so skittish about being under the government’s watchful eye.
“It’s so bad that there’s a gallows humor that has sort of emerged out of this,” Meyer said. “You see journalists at parties, and you joke about ‘How is the investigation going?’” People just assume they’re being investigated, and it’s not a good feeling.”
He said that he was “highly skeptical” of Obama’s announcement. “One would think he would have done that months or years ago when these investigations were authorized.”
Some journalists think that some of these confrontations between journalists and government sources could have been avoided. Jack Shafer, a Reuters media columnist, published an article called “What was James Rosen thinking?” that questioned why the correspondent did not try harder to protect his source. He said Rosen should not have used email, not visited the State Department’s offices and not timed his departure from the building at a time so close to his source. He also questioned what purpose publishing the information served.
“Boiled to its essence, the story says the U.S. has penetrated North Korean leadership,” Shafer wrote. “He would have been less conspicuous had he walked into the State Department wearing a sandwich board letter with his intentions to obtain classified information and then blasted an air horn to further alert authorities to his business.”
Still, Shachtman hopes that eventually sourcing will once again favor reporters. “This stuff is cyclical. There are times when one group is harder to talk to. There’s times when that group will be easier to talk to. Certain sources dry up,” he said. “Before you know it, those same sources spring back to life.”