Gerber: Government and press freedom: two outcomes

Gerber: Government and press freedom: two outcomes

May 19th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

There was good news and bad news for members of the media this week.

The good news came out of Nashville, where Gov. Bill Haslam did the right thing when he vetoed the so-called ag-gag bill, which would have forced anyone photographing or videotaping animal cruelty to turn over the images to law enforcement within 48 hours.

Although the law's supporters said it was to prevent animal abuse, it clearly was designed to thwart investigations by the press or animal rights groups. Haslam cited a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper that the bill's provisions are "constitutionally suspect" in regard to the First Amendment.

The governor also voiced concerns that the ag-gag law would repeal part of Tennessee's "shield law," which protects journalists' ability to collect information.

The bad news came out of Washington, D.C., where it turns out the U.S. Department of Justice has secretly examined two months of phone records of reporters with The Associated Press without the knowledge of the AP. The Justice Department was trying to ferret out who leaked information about how the CIA infiltrated an al-Qaida cell in Yemen.

The Justice Department's action flies in the face of the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press, one that can operate without government interference. A press that is free is not pressured, censored or monitored by the government and can act as one of the checks in a checks-and-balance system.

How can the press act as a watchdog when government investigators are essentially spying on their newsgathering work? Just the knowledge that federal government officials scoured the AP's records could put a chill on sources who may have wrongdoing to report but may now be afraid to come forth for fear of exposure.

The AP described the government's actions as "massive and unprecedented intrusion." That's accurate and frightening.

Still, while there's reason to be angry and offended at government officials taking steps to control or limit the press, it won't work. Yes, some sources will be reluctant to talk through email, texts or even their own phones. But they'll still find a way to get information to reporters. Technology that can be tracked isn't the only way to communicate.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, probably the most well-known American newspaper reporters, met their Deep Throat source in a parking garage. Those tips led to the Washington Post publishing the Watergate stories in 1972, long before email and smartphones made it possible for government officials to secretly track who's talking to reporters.

The Justice Department's outrageous actions might make sources more reluctant to come forward, but they will find a way. Journalism will prevail, despite a government that apparently likes to be as secretive as the journalists it's investigating for doing the same thing.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.