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Obama’s Free Press Problem: Why Reporters in the U.S. Now Need Protection

| November 29, 2013

obama free press repression reporters

Richard Nixon’s godchild. (White House)

Wednesday (Nov. 27), ProPublica founder and executive chairman Paul Steiger received the Burton Benjamin Memorial award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Here are his remarks.

By Paul Steiger

In recent days I thought a lot about the 16 previous recipients of the Burton Benjamin award, and re-read the words from this platform of some of them.
Their words are inspiring. Their deeds are awesome. I am humbled and deeply honored to be among them.

The first honoree, in 1997, was Ted Koppel of ABC, who for a significant time brought serious reporting to late-night TV with sustained high quality. The most recent, last year, was Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian, who has the vision to be a leader in reinventing journalism for the digital age and the courage to challenge both his government and ours on the extent to which they spy on us. Together, and with those in between, they inhabit an arc of profound change that I want to reflect on briefly tonight.

The arc actually goes back to 1981, when Michael Massing and other young writers with overseas experience founded CPJ.

American journalists were still basking in the reflected glow of All the President’s Men, the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie that five years earlier had won three Academy Awards and anointed Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and by implication all reporters as rock stars with typewriters. Yes, typewriters.

Woodward’s and Bernstein’s reporting in the Washington Post, based partly on tips from anonymous sources, helped drive President Nixon from office. This came only a few years after the Pentagon Papers case, in which the Supreme Court denied Nixon’s motion to bar the New York Times and the Post from publishing leaks of the papers, which detailed abuses during the Vietnam War.

U.S. journalists, in other words, were riding high.

What Michael and his young colleagues saw was that journalists in America had it far better than those abroad, particularly in repressive states. Americans had the protection of the First Amendment and the backing of wealthy, committed, and lawyer-stocked news organizations. In vast parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, reporters, editors, and broadcasters could be bankrupted, beaten, thrown into jail, or killed, by powerful people offended by what they wrote or aired.

As the experience of our incredibly courageous honorees tonight demonstrates, in many places around the world the life of a journalist who is determined to find and report the truth is no better today than it was 32 years ago. Reporters, editors, photographers, and publishers are still threatened, beaten, and murdered, often with impunity. The core mission of CPJ is just as critical as it ever was, in many respects more so.

What has changed is the position of us, American journalists. We are still far better off than our beleaguered cousins in danger zones abroad, of course.

But financially, I don’t need to tell this group of the hammering our industry has taken in the last decade. Publications shrinking or even closing, journalists bought out or laid off, beats shrunk or eliminated.

And now, more recently, we are facing new barriers to our ability to do our jobs – denial of access and silencing of sources.

For the starkest comparison, I urge any of you who haven’t already done so to read last month’s report, commissioned by CPJ and written by Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post. It lays out in chilling detail how an administration that took office promising to be the most transparent in history instead has carried out the most intrusive surveillance of reporters ever attempted.

It also has made the most concerted effort at least since the plumbers and the enemies lists of the Nixon Administration to intimidate officials in Washington from ever talking to a reporter.

Consider this:  As we now know from the Snowden documents, investigators seeking to trace the source of a leak can go back and discover anyone in government who has talked by phone or email with the reporter who broke the story. Match that against the list of all who had access to the leaked info and voila!

In my days editing the Wall Street Journal, I used to joke that no one in the Washington Bureau ever had an on-the-record conversation. Now I would have to wonder whether anyone was having any kind of conversation at all that wasn’t a White House-sanctioned briefing.

It isn’t just words. The White House has been barring news photographers from all sorts of opportunities to ply their craft. Routine meetings and activities of the president, of which they used to be able to shoot still and video images under certain constraints, now are often – not always, but often — off limits, according to the American Society of News Editors, which is protesting the action, along with other groups.


The administration has invited news organizations to pick up images handed out by the press office or from the White House website. Sort of like saying, “just print the press release,” as some corporate PR people used to say to me years ago when I asked for an interview with the CEO.

I don’t mean to suggest that this administration is always and everywhere implacably hostile to journalists. After its snooping into communications of the Associated Press and of a Fox News reporter was revealed, the administration agreed to certain restraints.

It ostensibly agreed not to prosecute anyone for engaging in journalism.  News organizations will generally be given advance notice when the Justice Department wants access to their records, so that they can resist in court, and warrants for access to a reporter’s records won’t be sought unless the reporter is a target of a criminal investigation. Still, the government can waive these constraints if national security is involved.

CPJ chairman Sandra Mims Rowe noted in announcing the Downie Report last month that the founders of CPJ “did not anticipate the need to fight for the rights of U.S. journalists who work with the protection of the First Amendment.” Limited resources, she said, had to be directed at countries with the greatest need. Even with declining revenues at U.S. news organizations, the principal need is still abroad.

But, she added, the time has come for CPJ to speak out against excessive government secrecy here at home. As just one supporter of CPJ, I agree. If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad, we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.

One last thing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m in despair. I’m definitely not.

A couple of billionaires, Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar, have put up several hundred millions of dollars in funding to, respectively, rebuild one great old platform – the Washington Post – and erect an entirely new one.

From New York to Texas to California, and in scattered places in between, non-profit reporting teams, ProPublica happily among them, are enjoying increasing success with both their journalism and their fundraising.

And new forms of web-based reporting like Buzzfeed are both attracting young audiences and sliding towards profitability. I was at first cranky the other day when Buzzfeed stole one of our brilliant senior editors. But then I realized his new job is to recruit half a dozen reporters and start an investigations team. For society and for journalism, that is progress.

We can’t rest. We need to stand up in stout opposition whenever the First Amendment is challenged at home. We need to speak out, even more vigorously than before, when journalists are abused around the world. We need to keep finding and funding more inventive ways to carry out serious reporting.

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12 Responses for “Obama’s Free Press Problem: Why Reporters in the U.S. Now Need Protection”

  1. Charles Gardner says:

    IMO it has always been that way, but worse now than ever.

  2. Mark Bliss says:

    I would love to feel sorry for you and journalists in general, but to be honest, journalists built this beast in a way. The current administration wasn’t taken to task on any issues by the media in general until AFTER it targeted journalists. And NOW you want sympathy? Where was the media’s outrage on countless other issues? Don’t tell me about fair play and your infringed rights without owning up to the monster you’ve helped install in the white house. Own your own mistakes.

  3. tom jack says:

    “The most transparent administration in history”. Try the most corrupt administration in history. The things this administration has done make Nixon look like a choirboy. It the media treated Obama like Nixon he would have never been reelected as he would have been forced out of office like Nixon. The media has lied, obfuscated, and done everything in their power to protect Obama. Let me be perfectly clear, if Obama were a republican the media would NEVER put up with his shenanigans and would have launched investigation after investigation into his actions. I see a double standard here.

    • Anonymous says:

      @tom jack says–Please list these “crimes” of Obama’s of which you speak. It would be interesting to see if they come anywhere NEAR approaching the harm done by George W. Bush & Co.for the lies they told the entire world on our nation’s behalf about WMD in Iraq, the condoned torture used to elicit information that turned out to be anything but true, “Brownie’s” excellent adventure in Katrina, etc..And don’t use the “It didn’t happen five minutes ago, therefore it doesn’t count, POOF, it’s gone” excuse. We are still paying for those fiascos and will continue to for some time to come. But, then again, Dick Cheney and Haliburton cleaned up pretty good on the backs of the Iraqi mess, so maybe, in some people’s eyes, that made it all worth it.

      • nomad says:

        In other words, this administration is blameless because of what GW and company did concerning Iraq. Might I remind you that a large majority of democrats in congress were in cahoots with GW. Look around at the other wars the democrats and their administration /representatives ARE and WERE involved in and you’ll see as the phrase goes “same difference” when it comes to the political parties of the democrats and republicans.

        What this journalist did not mention is that in many of the countries where journalists face serious threats, these very countries are allies of America whose very governments were put into power by the American government or are supported by the American government. So yes, journalist here in America have reason enough to be afraid because it too can happen to you.

        a million + likes to Mark Bliss’ spot on comment.

  4. Outsider says:

    And the journalism world is just waking up to this now? Everything was fine with you when the president was steamrolling the rights of those you disagreed with, but as is always the case, eventually the dictator runs over your’s. And you are not blameless in all of this. You made yourself the lapdog media of the president, drooling at his every word and ignoring every transgression, making him believe he is some sort of God that can’t be crossed. I remember a news conference from not long ago where a female “reporter” said just prior to asking her question, “Oh you always win Mr. president.” She looked more like a groupie at a Rolling Stones concert just waiting to lay Mick Jagger backstage than a journalist, but this is what your journalism schools churn out these days. But there is hope to be gleaned from this piece that journalists will return to objective professionalism and start asking tough questions of our leaders, and maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to wait until the Republicans are in charge, at least for the “tough questions” part of it. As to objectivity, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  5. tom jack says:

    I never mentioned any crimes. I said corruption. But now that YOU mention crimes how about the Benghazi coverup of 4 murdered Americans? How about the arbitrary changing of the ACA employer mandate without congressional approval? How about this president picking and choosing which immigration laws he enforces? How about Eric Holder and fast and furious? Need I continue?

  6. Sally says:

    @anonymous- Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Leaving Americans to die is worse than any crime this so called President has committed so far.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Sally says–Ah, yes, the Benghazi card again…Although the story keeps changing, according to who you listen to. By all means. let’s compare that to the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of casualties, both in the US and abroad, that have resulted from a war we were (ahem) “misinformed about” by the prior Republican administration. And It has yet to be seen whether the reverberations from THAT brilliant patriotic move will ever end. You know, it does seem that the FOX news devotees have a habit of blowing up (if not outright lying about) any hint of anything negative that has to do with Obama while, simultaneously and conveniently, feigning amnesia about the mistakes and sins committed by Conservatives, both past and present.

    • Anonymous says:

      @Sally says–Comparing Benghazi to the Iraq War is sort of like comparing the number 4 to the number one million and counting, don’t you think?

  7. Howard Duley says:

    The reason I don’t purchase a newspaper is because I don’t trust the so called journalists. They are not honest. They are as pink or red as you can get and someday you may get yours. There will be no sympathy here. Get it?

  8. Prescient33 says:

    George Orwell’s 1984 seems to be a model for this statist regime, what with its naked attempt to control the message, its feeble attempts at newspeak in trying to downplay the war on terror, etc. Without a complacent mainstream media it never would have succeeded as it has in its mission of dominance.

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