President Barack Obama speaks to journalists in Edgartown, Mass. in August. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks to journalists in Edgartown, Mass. in August. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

One year after CPJ’s US report, little has changed between Obama and press

After a summer plagued by war and disease abroad and partisan fighting at home, it was not hard to fathom why President Barack Obama would yearn for a retreat. But from which of the mounting crises did the president hope to escape: Ukraine? Islamic State? Ebola? The Tea Party? None of the above, according to an interview with Obama on the Sunday television news program “Meet the Press,” in early September. “What I’d love,” he said, “is a vacation from the press.”

To be fair, the president’s remarks were in connection to the media’s obsession with the “optics” of the job and the criticism he received for being photographed golfing shortly after the announcement of the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the militant group Islamic State. But it would not be a stretch to attach wider significance to the statement regarding the president’s hostile relationship with the media, as CPJ documented in its landmark report, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” published one year ago today.

In May, my blog post looked at what had changed in the seven months since CPJ’s first comprehensive report on press freedom in the United States, authored by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. The answer then, as it is now, was not much. Though the cast of characters and the specific settings might have shifted, it feels like journalists are stuck in the same play with the president, who admitted in the “Meet the Press” interview that the “theater” of politics doesn’t come to him naturally.

Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, may be on his way out, but the Justice Department has still not withdrawn a subpoena seeking to force New York Times journalist James Risen to give testimony that would reveal a confidential source. The Supreme Court said in June it would not consider Risen’s appeal of a lower court ruling that he must testify, meaning the journalist has exhausted his legal avenues and could face jail or a hefty fine if he is found to be in contempt of court. And on Thursday, court papers unsealed at the request of The New York Times shed more light on the efforts of journalist Mike Levine, then of Fox News, to quash a grand jury subpoena in 2011 seeking his confidential source for a story about alleged supporters of terrorism in Minnesota, according to news reports. Levine lost the fight but The Justice Department ultimately did not call him to testify.

Both of these cases are exemplary of the government’s will to aggressively prosecute alleged leakers of classified information and how the effort has ensnared the press. The government’s pursuit of journalists’ sources combined with the eight leak prosecutions under the Espionage Act; the implementation of programs designed to ferret out potential leakers, such as “Insider Threat;” and secret subpoenas of news outlets, have a created an environment in which officials are terrified to speak with reporters without explicit permission.

Risen painted a vivid picture of the chilling effect this dynamic has had on the field of national security reporting at an event in Chicago last month. According to The Associated Press, the journalist said one source was terrified just to see him on his doorstep. “He opened the door and he turned white,” Risen said. “He marches me back through the kitchen (to a back exit) and said, “‘Go out that way.'”

Risen’s explanation for the administration’s behavior was that Obama “hates the press.” While multiple theories abound, some journalists and analysts have suggested the attitude was at least originally designed to curry favor with an intelligence community that doubted Obama and was bellicose about stopping and punishing leaks. It was surprising then to read that, in his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta complains that the White House sought to control his contact with reporters. Officials with agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission–who, according to news reports, have been blocked and at times punished for sharing even non-classified information with the press–might tell Panetta, “Welcome to the club.”

After years of fighting a request by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department complied with an April court decision and released in June the classified memorandum that provided the administration’s legal justification for using drone strikes to kill a U.S. citizen overseas. The release was called “a victory for government transparency,” by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, but came only after the administration was granted permission to significantly redact the document.

The government is continuing to fight the release of photographs of U.S. forces posing with corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan; images from American military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan that may show mistreatment of prisoners; videos of forced feedings of detainees on hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay; and redacted sections of the congressional 9/11 report and the long-awaited CIA investigation on torture. The images and revelations contained in these files may be shocking and perhaps embarrassing to the government, but an informed public is necessary for the kind of open debate on sensitive issues that is essential to democratic societies.

In addition to what even officials have acknowledged to be rampant over-classification, the White House has continued its strategy of tightly controlling and scrutinizing even the information it shares voluntarily with the press. The “control-freak” nature of this administration–in the words of New York Times reporter David Sanger–now extends to the daily press-pool reports written by select members of the White House press corps and distributed by the executive branch to the media. Journalists claimed in The Washington Post that press aides have insisted on many occasions that even the most innocuous comments and observations were off the record and refused to distribute the reports if they weren’t eliminated.

The administration’s disheartening lack of response to our report and recommendations led CPJ to launch last month the campaign #RightToReport, which calls on the government to reform practices that undermine journalists’ ability to do their work in the digital age. Perhaps no American journalist is better acquainted with these tactics than the Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who reported being stopped or searched at the U.S. border approximately 40 times between 2006-2012. And that was before she met Edward Snowden.

To find out more about what happened after she met Snowden, check in next week, when I’ll be writing about today’s world premiere of Poitras’s new documentary on U.S. surveillance policies and Snowden, “Citizenfour.”