Attacks on press’s integrity undermine rights

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I was aggravated enough when President Donald Trump denigrated the journalistic integrity of nationally respected news organizations such as The Washington Post and New York Times as “fake news.” 

Not that I should have felt newspapers were especially targeted since the President has also attacked the integrity of a federal judge and the nation’s intelligence agencies. 

But his cry of “fake news” has infected the attitude of public officials across the country, who also have taken up the mantra of “fake news.” During the 2018 General Assembly, I had a state senator straight-faced tell me just prior to the beginning of a committee hearing that there are a half-dozen “fake news” entities in southern Indiana. I didn’t get to quiz him on who he put into that category or why, but am reasonably certain he was including Indiana newspapers that are members of the Hoosier State Press Association. 

Can a newspaper’s editorial page reflect its ownership’s political leanings? Yes. 

Have I disagreed on rare occasion with the news judgment by an editor? Yes. 

Have I seen factual errors that appear in print? Yes. 

Have I ever seen any evidence that a newspaper intentionally printed a false news story for whatever motivation – personal vendetta, political attack or some other reason? Absolutely NOT. 

But if someone who is respected enough in their community to be elected to the Indiana Senate believes newspapers could operate by printing false stories, then Indiana newspapers must address this gross misperception and HSPA will do so. 

But what’s even scarier is President Trump’s attitude toward the First Amendment. He has publicly expressed his preference that the libel laws be changed. And his Justice Department approved the seizing of several years of email and phone records of a reporter. 

The New York Times says the records of Ali Watkins were obtained before Watkins was hired by the Times in late 2017. The approved seizure was part of a FBI investigation into leaks of classified information. 

(Trump is not the first administration to seize reporters’ phone records. President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder publicly admitted to approving such actions. I’ve not seen any account of how often, but the implication was that it had happened more than once.) 

Since the reporter’s records seizure has come to light, James Wolfe, the former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI about his relationships with three reporters. The FBI had asked Watkins about a relationship with Wolfe, but Watkins did not answer the questions. 

The Justice Department alleges Wolfe lied to FBI agents about contacts with three reporters. He reportedly made false statements to the FBI about providing two reporters with non-public information about committee matters. 

Inside sources of information have long been a staple of reporting. It’s a counterweight to the attempt by government officials to control “the message.” The leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg revealed that the United States had been secretly involved in Vietnam as soon as the end of World War II and that officials had lied to the public as to the effectiveness of military efforts for years. 

It wasn’t a message that anyone tied to the administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon wanted revealed. 

I have no issue with administration or Congressional attempts to stop leaks. We all can agree that national security shouldn’t be compromised by the release of top secret information. But I would argue that the FBI should not interfere with the Freedom of the Press, which includes the ability to gather news, on any sort of regular basis. 

Spying on reporters or seizing phone, email or computer records should only be approved by the Justice Department when lives or national security is at stake and there is no other way to obtain information necessary to save American lives. I wonder though if my position is shared by the majority of Americans. If it isn’t, does that put our First Amendment into jeopardy? If that First Amendment right is weakened, does it put the freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition government into peril. 

In the late 1700s, the Constitution would not have become the law of the land without those rights. Can anyone argue that the First Amendment is any less important today?