The New York Times‘ James Risen is by most accounts an outstanding journalist. But being an accomplished reporter evidently doesn’t immunize him from jumping aboard the outrage machine, claiming that President Obama is the worst [you name it] ever. In her column this past week, Maureen Dowd talked with Risen about the Obama administration’s record on press freedom, prompting Risen to announce:
A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.
We should probably grant Risen a bit of latitude here. He’s been under considerable pressure from the Justice Department going back to the Bush administration for his reporting on a Clinton-era CIA operation involving Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Risen has repeatedly and justifiably refused to give up his source for the 2006 story, inciting the Bush and Obama administrations to issue subpoenas for Risen’s testimony (Attorney General Holder renewed the Bush subpoena in 2009). But, to date, DOJ hasn’t arrested or detained Risen. So, indeed, for Risen himself, I suppose he could make such a broad claim about Obama, but considering how the Bush DOJ first issued the subpoena, it would seem the title of “greatest enemy” should be a shared honorific.
Beyond Risen’s specific case, there’s simply no way Obama is the “greatest enemy to press freedom.” Either Risen is lashing out in reaction to his own situation or he’s piling onto the administration along with so many other sufferers of the dreaded Obama Derangement Syndrome, or maybe it’s both. But any reasonable comparative analysis of the last several administrations reveals a very different viewpoint — that, yes, other previous chief executives have been about the same if not worst than Obama on press freedom.
Assuming Risen was specifically referencing the records of U.S. presidents on press freedom, recent history tells us the following:
1) Jailed journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there haven’t been any American journalists jailed inside the U.S. by the Obama DOJ — save for several journalists detained recently in Ferguson, MO, but such actions can hardly be blamed on Obama. Roger Shuler, meanwhile, a blogger for something called “Legal Schnauzer,” was arrested for contempt of court by Shelby County, Alabama authorities. On the other hand, the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press listed the following journalists who were arrested during both the Clinton and Bush administrations:
2006, Josh Wolf, San Francisco, Calif. Freelance video blogger initially jailed for a month when he refused to turn over a video tape that federal officials said contained footage of protesters damaging a police car. Wolf was released on bail on Sept. 1, but an appeals court panel confirmed the contempt order against him and Wolf returned to jail. He was finally released on April 3, 2007.
2005, Judith Miller, Washington, D.C.New York Times reporter jailed for refusing to testify against news sources in the investigation into leaks of a CIA operative’s name by White House officials. She spent 85 days in jail, and was released when she agreed to provide limited testimony to the grand jury regarding conversations with vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby without revealing her other sources.
2004, Jim Taricani, Providence, R.I. A WJAR television reporter obtained and aired in February 2001 a portion of the videotape showing a Providence city official accepting a bribe from an undercover FBI informant. The tape was sealed evidence in an FBI investigation into corruption by Providence officials, including former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. Taricani was subpoenaed, but refused to reveal his source and was found in civil contempt of court. After a failed appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.), NBC, WJAR’s network, paid $85,000 in fines. In November, Taricani was found in criminal contempt of court and a month later, was sentence to six months home confinement. He was granted early release after being confined for four months.
2001, Vanessa Leggett, Houston, Texas. Author researching “true crime” book jailed for 168 days by federal judge for refusing to disclose her research and the identities of her sources to a federal grand jury investigating a murder. Leggett was freed only after the term of the grand jury expired. A subsequent grand jury indicted the key suspect in the murder without any need for her testimony. Leggett may again face a subpoena during his murder trial.
2000, Timothy Crews, Red Bluff, Calif.Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher served a five-day sentence for refusing to reveal his confidential sources in a story involving the sale of an allegedly stolen firearm by a state patrol officer.
1996, Bruce Anderson, Ukiah, Calif. Editor of Anderson Valley Independent found in civil contempt, jailed for total of 13 days for refusing to turn over original letter to the editor received from prisoner. After a week, he tried to turn over the letter, but judge refused to believe it was the original because it was typed. After another week, judge finally accepted that the typewritten letter was the original.
1996, David Kidwell, Palm Beach County, Fla.Miami Herald reporter found in criminal contempt, sentenced to 70 days for refusing to testify for prosecution about jailhouse interview. Served 14 days before being released on own recognizance after filing federal habeas corpus petition.
1994, Lisa Abraham, Warren, Ohio. Newspaper reporter jailed from Jan. 19 to February 10, for refusing to testify before a state grand jury about jailhouse interview.
For the record, there are zero journalist arrests listed by RCFP for dates after 2006. It’s also worth noting that the Bush administration detained Al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera, at Guantanamo Bay.
2) National security journalists still at large. Arguably the most harmful American journalists to the national security interests of the United States have been Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman. Say whatever you will about their veracity or their goals, but there’s no justification whatsoever for arresting any of the now-famous NSA reporters covering the Snowden beat. Doing so would be a major trespass against the Constitution. And so not one of the Snowden reporters have been arrested or detained. Not one, in spite of the reality that they’ve all moved freely inside the United States for more than a year now (Greenwald most recently during his book tour) and very well could’ve been picked up at any time. But if indeed Obama was the “greatest enemy to press freedom,” wouldn’t Greenwald et al be first in line for arrest?
3) Surveillance of Journalists. One of the least savory actions by the Obama intelligence community has been the NSA’s collection of the Associated Press‘s phone records, and the surveillance of Fox News reporter James Rosen (not to be confused with James Risen), who was involved with the leaking of classified information on North Korea. This is an area where the administration gets poor marks, but it should be reiterated that Rosen has not been arrested. However, yes, such investigations certainly represent a chilling effect on the actions of legitimate reporters.
4) The so-called “War on Whistleblowers.” Simply put: there is no war. Perhaps Risen and Dowd should’ve consulted with their colleague Charlie Savage who wrote the following for The New York Times, effectively debunking the notion of a war against whistleblowers/leakers:
[A] closer look reveals a surprising conclusion: the crackdown has nothing to do with any directive from the president, even though he is now promoting his record as a political asset.
Instead, it was unplanned, resulting from several leftover investigations from the Bush administration, a proliferation of e-mail and computer audit trails that increasingly can pinpoint reporters’ sources, bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher approach, and a push by the director of national intelligence in 2009 that sharpened the system for tracking disclosures.
That’s light years away from making a deliberate effort to target whistleblowers as a matter of administration policy.
In the least charitable analysis, Obama is just about on par with previous presidents when it comes to press freedom. In terms of jailing journalists, his record is nearly spotless. In terms of surveillance, it’s murky. In terms of a “war on whistleblowers,” it’s simply a matter of coincidence rather than policy.
We’re forced then to conclude that reality appears irrelevant to anyone with a preconceived anti-Obama agenda, chiefly pursued by the marketing of attention-grabbing exaggerations in the age of outraged click-bait. Misleading claims about Obama being worse than X, Y or Z serve only one purpose: to muster internet traffic via screamer headlines and lots of retweets by participants who refuse to examine the comparative reality of the story.
Sadly, Risen’s well-earned status as a respected and award-winning journalist hasn’t precluded him from dealing himself into this all-too-familiar game. Worse yet, Risen’s story is an important one and, for its debatable actions, the administration deserves to be scolded, yet Risen’s story doesn’t require these broad, easily-disproved pronouncements about “greatest enemy” or “worse than Bush” or whatever other tweetable soundbites are routinely dumped onto the tubes. It hurts his story and ultimately bastardizes objective truth: the very goal journalists like Risen should be pursuing.