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Media Rights Under Fire Once Again


Since his election in 2008, many on the right have believed that the news media — with the exceptions of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal — are President Barack Obama's sycophants. Yet the casual observer might have missed that Obama's relationship with the supposed liberal media often has been rocky.

That's chiefly because Obama and his national security advisers have reiterated the disdain for reporters that for White House occupants stretches back to Richard Nixon. In The Atlantic in August 2014, Jon Marshall, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, noted, "Nixon's way of handling the press has prevailed in American politics. Intimidating journalists, avoiding White House reporters, staging events for television — now common presidential practices — were all originally Nixonian tactics."

We can cite three recent examples of such behavior exhibited by Obama and his staff.

In May 2013, The Associated Press announced that then-Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department had subpoenaed from telecommunications companies the home and cellphone records of 20 AP reporters. The purpose was to learn who leaked information to the AP.

That same month The Washington Post reported that Holder had declared Fox News reporter James Rosen a "criminal co-conspirator" in endorsing search warrants to obtain Rosen's emails. Holder wanted those, and had ordered the FBI to monitor Rosen's visits to the State Department, in suspecting a government contractor of having leaked to Rosen classified information.

Finally, in January, the Justice Department announced that it would abandon a six-year crusade, which included threats of prison time, to force James Risen of The New York Times to reveal who conveyed confidential information about a Clinton administration CIA operation targeting Iran that Risen had included in a book he authored in 2006.

Last month it came to light that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently issued guidelines that said journalists in war zones, who generally are civilians, also may be "members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents" — which is the term the Obama administration has substituted for what the Bush administration called "unlawful enemy combatants" — that is, terrorists.

Journalism outlets complained that reporters were too easily being lumped in with terrorists.

The Pentagon replied that the term was being misunderstood, that they just wanted to inform military commanders that spies or terrorists sometimes can pose as reporters.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists has noted, the term is so loosely defined that military leaders could easily cite it to "detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial." The Pentagon's solution is worse: it suggests reporters could offer their stories to "relevant authorities" for review so as to "not reveal sensitive information to the enemy." The choice is thus detention with no legal protections, or outright censorship.

We understand the Pentagon's concern with safeguarding the lives of American soldiers. Yet Obama's record on dealing with the media is not good, and his desire to plumb leaks, withhold information, or obfuscate might even make Nixon in the afterlife cringe.

We don't want to see any troops injured or killed by what a journalist reports, but the fog of war too often conceals the truth — which, it has been said, is the first casualty. Carter and the Pentagon hierarchy should revise this language, if not scrap it, to ensure the American people are not denied the fullest picture of combat and to adhere with our constitutional protections of the media.




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