Recently, House of Representatives panel discussed potentially amending the Espionage Act to prosecute journalists who report leaked information. In response to several instances where reporters have used information leaked to them by confidential sources to write stories, the panel suggested amending the law, which was enacted in 1917 to prosecute spies and others who divulge information considered sensitive, to punish journalists who do not reveal their sources. According to the LA Times, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R – SC) said “Put them in front of the grand jury. You either answer the question or you’re going to be held in contempt and go to jail, which is what I thought all reporters aspire to do anyway.”
No journalist has been prosecuted under the Espionage Act before, and the idea is more than chilling towards those who believe that one of the major functions of media should be to hold government accountable for its actions. Such thinking is a cornerstone of the First Amendment, which according to Rep. James Sensebrenner (R-Wis), needs limitations. The Christian Science Monitor reports Sensebrenner said:
We’ve got the constitutional issue about the First Amendment protecting the freedom of the press, but there has to be a balance. I feel that there has to be some self-restraint on the part of the press, saying we have this information but it would be tremendously damaging to our nation if it was published.
Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who’s made headlines recently for trying to revive SOPA via a new bill called the Intellectual Property Attache Act, suggested that news outlets real motivation behind publishing leaked information is self promotion, rather than government accountability and transparency. In a statement, Smith asked “What are the boundaries of free speech?” He also said that many leaks come from “highly-placed Administration officials” and that if true, “this means that Administration officials are weakening our national security and endangering American lives.”
In addition to suggesting that journalists should be imprisoned for doing their job (reporting on what’s happening, protecting their sources from retribution, etc), Smith also penned a column earlier this month perpetuating the myth media is “liberal,” saying that the public’s confidence in media has eroded because of liberal bias. Smith said since media under reported President Obama’s absence at the UN Environmental Conference on Sustainable Development, but criticized George W Bush during his presidency for not attending, it shows a liberal bias in all media. His outlet of choice to pontificate was Newsbusters, a website run by the conservative Media Research Center, both famous for setting out to “expose and combat liberal media bias.”
First, the assumption that “all reporters aspire to go to jail” is completely ludicrous. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 1,044 journalists were arrested in 2011, nearly 2,000 were physically attacked or threatened, and 66 were killed. In addition, hundreds of bloggers and other independent members of the media were arrested or physically attacked. Additionally, Josh Stearns at Free Press documented nearly 100 arrests of journalists or other indy media reporters at Occupy related protests or events since October of 2011. I personally challenge Rep. Trey Gowdy to contact each one of those reporters and ask them if their harassment, detention, arrest, or assault was something they hoped for.
Second, there is no such thing as the “National Liberal Media.” Lamar Smith might want the American people believe a single comparison between the Obama and Bush administration, changing rhetoric when reporting gas prices and a non-partisan survey by Gallup showing little confidence in media from Americans proves evil socialists run the press, but facts say otherwise. Fairness and Accuracy In reporting released a report in 1998 showing that journalists were mostly centrist in their political orientation and those that didn’t identify as “center” were more likely to identify with the “right” when it came to economic issues and “left” when it came to social issues. The Pew Research Center found that just last year, for five months, just 9 percent of President Obama’s press coverage was positive. In addition, Pew found now that the primaries are over, Obama’s press coverage in 2012 was consistently negative, whereas Mitt Romney’s was “a more mixed narrative.”
Beyond partisan politics, it’s well known that a few large conglomerates and corporations own most of the media. While Smith rails against that media for being too liberal, he also cashes in from the major corporations. Thanks to donations from big players like Comcast, Time Warner and Clear Channel, Smith managed to raise $1.3 million campaign funds and won 76 percent of the vote in the primary election in Texas this year. For someone who believes that media covers stories to “self promote” and “increase circulation,” Smith doesn’t seem to mind political promotion and increased campaign donations from that same media.
Sadly, the discussion over making changes to the Espionage Act is just one of many attempts to silence journalists from doing their job (investigating and reporting) rather than act as simple stenographers for government officials and heads of big business. The push to punish journalists for using leaked information, perpetuating the “liberal media” myth and sewing a general distrust for media that challenges the narrative corporations and government seems to be the real goal of politicians like Smith, Sensebrenner and Gowdy. The Fourth Estate has already been on life support for some time now, and as journalists – both mainstream and DIY/citizen reporters – begin to breathe life back into a dying and necessary democratic art, the powers that be will attempt to suffocate them. Should our society wish to retain the few freedoms it has left, we must support brave acts of journalism on all fronts.