It was revealed last week that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) secretly subpoenaed and seized some phone records of the Associated Press (AP) as part of a leak investigation in 2012. The DOJ claims that the leak put national security at risk. What that risk was is not entirely clear. There are reports that it may relate to an averted terror plot to blow up a US-bound plane. No matter what the specifics, the AP is outraged by the seizure of these phone records and perceives this as an intrusive attack on the press.
Understandably, most media outlets are discussing how this so-called “scandal” is affecting the Obama administration. However, there is a bigger picture worth examining.
I believe in freedom of the press, but I also believe that with that freedom comes grave responsibility and accountability. National security is a tricky business that – when shared too liberally – has the potential to put lives at risk.
Do we have the right to know what our government is doing? YES. However, if my knowing something puts someone else’s life in danger, do I really want to know? It’s an inescapably tough question because that consequence should be too great. So how do we stay informed and protect the lives of those who are trying to protect us?
There is no clear-cut answer. It’s an ongoing balancing act between the needs of the government to protect us, the needs of the media to inform us, and our need to be informed and protected. Government will tend to be more cautious because protecting the nation is their responsibility and they will be blamed if something goes wrong. The media will tend to share stories openly because that is their job; keeping us informed.
This balancing act is fraught with problems for potential abuse, especially when personal gain becomes more important than moral sense. Both government and the media can fall victim to this problem: government – when trying to hide embarrassing stories; and media – when they are more concerned with “being first” to break a story and share it without having all of the facts.
Ultimately, we need a free press to help keep government accountable. But even so, with political bias in the media you can’t take anything at face-value. A pet peeve of mine is reading news articles where almost every quote is from an anonymous source “not authorized to speak on behalf of the government.” That is not responsible journalism…anybody can make anything up. If I don’t know who said it, it’s not credible or confirmed. Leaks are a form of manipulation; so please, don’t insult my intelligence.
In this particular case it’s easy to vilify the government and accuse them of going too far, but we need to remember that both sides must be held to account.
Did the DOJ over-reach its authority during its leak investigation and infringe upon the first amendment rights of the press? And, did the press put lives in danger by publishing their story? Short answer: it’s complicated. But both of these questions need to be answered.
We as the public also have a responsibility. We can’t ask the first question and simply ignore the second. That would be irresponsible.