Jewish World Review May 17, 2013/ 8 Sivan, 5773
The AP and the NRA
By Rich Lowry
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Rarely has the White House briefing room so resembled the main ballroom at a meeting of Conservative Political Action Conference.
When he woke up on Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Jay Carney probably thought that he would have to deal with querulous reporters pressing him on all fronts. Little did he know he’d really have to confront citizens bristling with anger over perceived encroachments on their rights by an overweening government.
At times, Carney must have wondered whether he had wandered into a congressional town hall circa 2009 with himself in the role of the late Arlen Specter and the reporters as the tea partiers.
The proximate cause of this transformation was the revelation that the Justice Department had subpoenaed up to two months of telephone records for 20 office and personal lines of staff of The Associated Press. This news transformed a typically sleepy press corps into a pitchfork-wielding mob that must have been tempted to unfurl a “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag at the back of the room.
The AP subpoena is the media’s Obamacare. Their Glenn Beck is AP President Gary Pruitt; their Tea Party Express is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and their rallying cry is, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
The reaction to the government seizure of the phone records is another reminder, if we needed one, that what the press cares about most is itself.
The New York Times sniffed at the Internal Revenue Service scandal. It didn’t even put the initial story on the front page. When it did eventually front it, the headline was about how Republicans were trying to make hay of the scandal. Editorially, it issued a relatively tepid tsk-tsk. But the AP subpoena earned the White House a firm rebuke in an editorial titled “Spying on the Associated Press”: The administration has “a chilling zeal for investigating leaks” and is trying “to frighten off whistleblowers.”
It sounds like the Times should go back and read President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Ohio State University the other day, where he lamented that the students have been “hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity” and “that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.”
Yes, why can’t all the journalists hyped up about the AP subpoena simply put more trust in the good intentions and the workings of their own government?
The Justice Department subpoena was over-broad and appears to have violated guidelines that say all other alternatives should be exhausted before resorting to such a sweeping measure. In addition, the AP didn’t get the customary heads up.
The press is right to be upset, and it is notable that the Bush administration never went this far. Still, some perspective is in order: There is no right to traffic in illegally obtained classified information. The leak that was being investigated sounds as if it was a serious one, involving a double agent in Yemen. The investigation into it is surely being driven by career prosecutors in the Justice Department, although the sign-off of Deputy Attorney General James Cole on the AP subpoena must’ve been very important.
Yet few in the press are interested in any nuance. At his briefing, Carney hung to the word “unfettered” like a drowning man. He said over and over again things like the president believes in an “unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism” but that there should be “balance.” The implicit reaction in the room was: “Balance? Don’t give us any stinkin’ balance. Give us our rights.”
In this, the reporters exhibited a healthy impulse toward vigilance about liberty. The phrase “chilling effect” has been bandied about often. A chill comes not necessarily from what government is doing to you but from what it might do to you. Very few reporters will ever have their records secretly subpoenaed by the government, but it is intolerable to them that it could happen. On top of everything else, it is the principle of the thing — an infringement, or even a potential infringement, on the constitutional rights of even a handful of reporters is an affront to all.
There are lots of people who share this way of thinking about rights and government. Some of them gather every year at places like CPAC and the National Rifle Association annual convention.
We have just gone through a period when scorn was heaped on the NRA for opposing new gun rules out of the very same logic that compels reporters to react so strongly against the AP subpoena. The NRA will not abide an infringement on anyone’s legitimate right to bear arms, and it fears what could come of enhanced state power. Like the reporters, it casts a jaundiced eye on the reassurances of government. What they are to the First Amendment, it is to the Second.
Journalists should learn from this moment. Maybe they should stop rolling their eyes at Ted Cruz and have a little appreciation for the regard in which he holds the Constitution. Maybe they should credit the skepticism about government of the tea party, which was absolutely spot on in its early complaints about the IRS. Maybe, about five years too late, they should invest the phrase “adversarial press” with true meaning.
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