President Obama, who vowed to have a transparent presidency in dealing with the media, seems to have gone to war with journalists and government officials who leak information to reporters.
After the revelation that the Department of Justice spied on the Associated Press, new cases have become public this week about tracking reporters and their sources.
The department’s inspector general criticized a former federal prosecutor in Arizona for leaking documents about the gun-trafficking investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious, a scandal the administration repeatedly stalled.
Furthermore, the FBI obtained a search warrant — approved by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — to spy on Fox News correspondent James Rosen because it believed he had violated the Espionage Act of 1917, a law intended to prevent state secrets from getting to foreign governments. Mr. Rosen spoke with Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department analyst on North Korea who reportedly provided classified information to the journalist. Mr. Kim has pleaded not guilty but has not yet gone on trial for violating the statute and making false statements to government officials about his relationship with Mr. Rosen.
It should be noted that the Obama administration has brought charges against six leakers, more than all the previous presidents combined, and Mr. Holder launched a special investigation to ferret out leakers only last year.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney told reporters this week: The president “is a strong defender of the First Amendment and a firm believer in the need for the press to be able to conduct investigative reporting.” But Mr. Carney, a former reporter himself for Time, added: “Leaks can endanger the lives of men and women in uniform and other Americans.”
I find myself troubled both by my colleagues’ defenses and also the justifications set forward by the administration. I find myself at odds with the arguments put forward by many journalists, primarily because I find the use of anonymous sources far too prevalent in the media.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics provides two important points about the use of anonymous sources:
• Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
• Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
A recent research study found the number of anonymous sources dropped from 50 percent to 25 percent in stories on the front pages of two major newspapers between 1978 and 2008. Nevertheless, I believe 25 percent is still too high, particularly in a place like Washington, D.C., which accounts for a high percentage of such sourcing.
For example, the use of anonymous sources by the New York Times provided what turned out to be overstated information about the size of the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More recently, anonymous sources led three news organizations — the AP, CNN and Fox News — to report erroneously that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing.
On the other hand, I cannot abide the administration’s inconsistency in using leaks when they help Mr. Obama and investigating them when they hurt the administration. For example, a group of former CIA officials and Navy SEALs complained about what they considered a breach of security when the administration provided details of the death of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, the AP investigation shows a lack of coordination between the CIA, which reportedly had no significant problem with a report on a successful operation to stop a terrorist attack in Yemen, and the Department of Justice’s insistence on finding out who leaked the story.
Simply put, reporters need to be careful how they use anonymous sources and whether it is actually necessary to use them. The Obama administration needs to temper the wide and rather reckless swath it has taken to track down those sources.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @charper51.