Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 8, 2014


Host: Ted Simons

Attacks on Journalism


  • The Committee to Protect Journalists and Bloomberg News will host a public forum at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication regarding attacks on journalism. One of the Panelists, former Washington Post Executive Editor and now ASU Professor Leonard Downie Jr., will talk about the attacks, which come from sources such as the Obama Administration’s war on leaks and NSA surveillance.
Guests:
  • Leonard Downie Jr. - Professor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Category: Government   |   Keywords: government, attacks, journalism, war, leaks, nsa, surveillance, news, bloomberg,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The committee to protect journalists is teaming with Bloomberg news tonight to present a panel discussion on the U.S. government's increasing threats to the press. The public forum will be held at ASU's Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communications. Former "Washington Post" executive editor and current ASU professor Leonard Downie junior is on tonight's panel. He is with us tonight. Good to he see you again.

Leonard Downie junior: Nice to see you.

Ted Simons: This is a forum that addresses what?

Leonard Downie junior: The increasing problems that American news media are having covering issues of national security. It's two-fold. One is that the Obama administration has essentially declared war on leakers, even though the president promises to be the most open administration in history. It has not been. Anybody who leaks classified information to the press in their view is investigated. There are lie detector tests. In some cases there cycle some prosecutions under a seldom used espionage act. Eight different sources of information have been prosecuted under that. A "New York Times" reporter is under subpoena with the threat he will go to prison if he doesn't testify against one of these people who is being prosecuted. And now comes along the revelations of the NSA surveillance, and the question of whether or not journalists and their sources are subject to that surveillance as well.

Ted Simons: So we are talking eight prosecutions for leaks. I think I read only three in the entire country --

Leonard Downie junior: Three in 90years from 1917 until the Obama administration. And eight of them since 2009.

Ted Simons: So if these folks are being prosecuted for leaks, what kind of information is being leaked?

Leonard Downie junior: Well, it depends on the prosecution. But in one case, for instance, it was questions about whether or not the NSA was spending too much money on surveillance techniques that weren't working, for example. We call that whistle blowing in the newspaper business. And we think that's important information for the American public to have.

Ted Simons: How do you differentiate between whistle blowing and leaking classified information that might better be kept classified?

Leonard Downie junior: Well, the first thing is there's way too much information has been classified, way, way, too much. The president has said that. But for instance, the revelations by private Chelsea manning in the documents that were turned over to the media, a lot of what was classified in there were newspaper articles and diplomatic cables. They are not supposed to be secret. They never were secret so there's a lot of stuff that shouldn't be classified. And the question, for editors to decide and television price producers to decide when there is information that's injurious to national security. By and large the news media is good about not putting that on the air. What we do need to be doing is bringing to the attention of the American people those activities by our government that people should have some say in.

Ted Simons: And in researching this, the Yemen terrorist plot. We had classified Israeli information disclosing names of CIA agents. I know some would say I want to keep that classified. You are saying it's up to the press to determine whether or not that should be classified?

Leonard Downie junior: Yes. The one thing you mentioned is definitely against the law. It's against the law to identify or publish the names of covert CIA agents. In that case even though that person was originally prosecuted for it's -- that didn't really happen in the way the government alleged. They just wanted to stop that particular person from talking generally about problems in the CIA to the press. And that's a problem is that the government, what the government is doing is using these kinds of laws and all of our agreements that you shouldn't, should not publish information that's harmful to national security as a cover for trying to protect things that are embarrassing or politically problems.

Ted Simons: So just to make sure because the folks watching this will say I don't want to know about America's attempts to undermine Iran's nuclear plans. There are limits to the free flow of information but the limits are way past what the Obama administration is doing right now?

Leonard Downie junior: Yes, yes. And for instance in the case of the attempts to gum up the works in the Iranian nuclear program, this was, in fact, already out because somebody had done something wrong, and as a result, the virus had gone out around the world causing all sorts of trouble instead of being confined to the covert operation against Iran. That's really what the reporting was about. It wasn't revealing anything that the Iranians didn't already know.

Ted Simons: Right, right. Has, thinks a reflection on the changing nature of the media? With blogs out there, with everyone and their brother seeming to run some sort of information portal out there. Is that, could that be why this is changing?

Leonard Downie junior: Well, it's changing in a variety of ways. Yes, the media is becoming more fragmented, there's not this central occur that would occur when there were a few big newspapers and big television networks. Everybody has more access to information. But it's also about the technology. And it's about the technology on both sides. Edward Snowden was able to use technology to bring to public attention all kinds of information that normally you wouldn't be able to get out of the system. And on the other hand, the news media is becoming more adept at using technology to find things.

Ted Simons: Yeah, and they are finding things. Can we trust those in power -- these people trust folks like you, as you mentioned, to sit there and figure out if this is injurious to the country. With K-we still trust folks throughout?

Leonard Downie junior: I have not seen any examples yet of information that's been made public that is truly injurious to either human life or national security.

Ted Simons: You mentioned NSA and surveillance. How much were, were journalists targeted big time here?

Leonard Downie junior: We don't know its answer. Because the metadata collection is collecting everybody's phone records. We do know some of the prosecutions we discussed earlier this was not NSA surveillance, this was secret subpoenas by the justice department. Secret seizures of phone records of news sources and reporters which, of course, was very invasive of the editorial process. And actually violated the justice department's own guidelines. But the problem with the NSA surveillance is all of the communication records of all Americans are being collected, and so we don't know how much is being matched up between journalists and sources.

Ted Simons: So we don't know necessarily if journalists are targeted for -- they are being caught up in the big net.

Leonard Downie junior: Right, right. And we don't know but that is very worrying to source. When I did a report a little while ago on the Obama administration, the press about all these problems, all the reporters in Washington who deal with any kind of national security issues, telling me their sources were drying up because they didn't know when they were being surveilled or in the being surveilled. They didn't know when somebody was searching through their phone records north. They are all worried about getting in trouble or even being prosecuted.

Ted Simons: Indeed. The concept of a Federal shield law, what we are talking about here?

Leonard Downie junior: Many states, in fact, most states in the union already have shield laws in which reporters under most circumstances cannot be forced legally to reveal their sources, confidential sources of information which is a big protection of the kind of reporting that's necessary for investigative reporting. It protects sources' identities in many cases. The Federal law would do the same thing for Federal law enforcement and for Federal cases. Which is not -- does not exist now. There's no such protection now.

Ted Simons: Is there work afoot?

Leonard Downie junior: There are bills in Congress to do it. There are questions about how you define who is covered by the legislation because what, who constitutes a journalist now days? The bill talks about who is covered by the law. But that's one issue. And the other issue is the national security exempts exemption the bill does center big national security exemption and some national security reporters tell me that's fine and good for other reporters dealing with their confidential sources but it's not going to protect me at all because there's a big exemption for national security. James Risen of the "New York Times" is still under subpoena to testify in one of these prosecutions we discussed and if he doesn't testify he is going to go to prison. It's gone up to the appellate circuit court of appeals. Probably make its way to the Supreme Court before it's over. He is not protected by shield law because there's no Federal shield law.

Ted Simons: Is it a good chance we will see a Congressional debate out there but where is the debate going?

Leonard Downie junior: There appears to be a consensus in Congress that this is something that ought to pass but we just have to wait and see. It's been making its way gradually through the Congress. It's supported by most media organizations and by most people who are concerned about government transparently.

Ted Simons: A last question on this. Is the press playing catch-up to government surveillance efforts? Or is the government playing catch-up to terrorist efforts or nefarious efforts? It seems like technology -- we talked about this earlier. It just seems like everyone is trying to play catch-up. Things are getting caught in the middle.

Leonard Downie junior: Things are going back and forth between the United States and adversaries and whether or not we are ahead or behind I don't know. But I do know the government is way ahead of the media, reporters now are scrambling to figure out how can they encrypt their emails? How can they use phones differently? Do they have to meet people in underground garages like in Watergate? And so on. So it's the media that's trying to catch up with the government now.

Ted Simons: The last thing, what do you want folks to fray this forum?

Leonard Downie junior: I want them to know that in, the only country in the world with the first amendment, the government is impinging too much on the freedom of press particularly the ability to do investigative reporting that holds government accountable to all of us.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Leonard Downie junior: Good to see you.

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