SATTLER: Needed check on government

11/30/2013

During the recent Inland Press Association annual meeting in Chicago, much time was spent on new and innovative ways to enhance print and digital content and sales in the midst of journalism's changing landscape.

During the recent Inland Press Association annual meeting in Chicago, much time was spent on new and innovative ways to enhance print and digital content and sales in the midst of journalism's changing landscape.

One of the industry's more longstanding, vital roles also warranted attention.

An important presentation during the Inland meeting addressed issues related to news gathering and First Amendment protections in today's technologically advanced world.

In "Protecting our Reporters," Karen Kaiser, associate general counsel for The Associated Press, took up ramifications of the case involving AP and Fox News — a situation with disturbing revelations and a chilling impact on a news-gathering process essential to maintaining the free flow of information to the public.

Department of Justice officials acknowledged earlier this year that they seized records for 21 AP phone lines during an investigation into who provided information for an AP story in May 2012 on a foiled al-Qaida bomb plot in Yemen. A Fox News reporter also was labeled a criminal co-conspirator as an excuse to get his email correspondence.

The case raised serious questions about federal government data-mining, and whether some journalism efforts could be considered a crime. And, it brought a sobering reminder of how a free, unfettered press may be threatened and create situations in which the public only hears what government wants it to hear.

A challenge always comes in how to balance the secrecy sometimes required in national security investigations with the public's right to know what its government is doing. Journalists, though, are charged with doing what they can to protect the free flow of information.

During her Inland presentation to editors and publishers from newspapers across the nation, Kaiser noted the Obama administration has been part of more "leak investigations" than all previous administrations combined. Expect that trend to escalate amid more progress on the technology front.

While the number of investigations grows, would-be whistleblowers in position to expose government corruption may be reluctant to work with journalists interested in reporting the facts. When a reporter faces the threat of jail if they don't reveal their sources at government's request, sources understandably become less likely to cooperate, which severely hinders the news-gathering process.

Kaiser did cite a positive step in recent U.S. Senate committee approval of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, a victory for supporters of a media shield law at the federal level that would address who should be protected from having to reveal their journalistic sources in court.

Such legislation wouldn't be a cure-all, she acknowledged, but would provide common-sense protections. As they take up the proposal, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike at least should be able to agree that a free, independent press provides the most swift and effective check on government power.

Kaiser also said the attacks on AP and Fox journalists' ability to do their jobs should generate public outrage. Likewise, news organizations need to speak out and remind their audiences how freedoms of speech and the press enshrined in the First Amendment act as a check on government overreach and help protect our democracy.

We'll continue to defend our role as advocate for the public's right to know, and our mission of disseminating information people need to see — to include missteps by our elected officials. That goes for governments at every level: federal, state and local.

Journalists have a duty to engage in the ongoing fight for First Amendment protection. Citizens who believe in our democracy should do the same.

If we take our precious rights for granted, others will, as well — and those rights will continue to be under assault.

Email Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.

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