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home : opinions : commentary May 22, 2015

6/6/2013 1:01:00 PM
Commentary: Take Obama at his word? Which one - and when?
Nat Hentoff

In a somersault of a speech, President Barack Obama, sounding like he did when he first ran for the Oval Office, recently declared that “a free press is also essential for our democracy. That’s who we are” (“Obama, in Nod to Press, Orders Review of Inquiries,” The New York Times, May 24).

He subsequently ordered a review of his Justice Department’s subpoena of the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors during an investigation of national security leaks. This, of course, affects any of us who care about a free press.

“I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable,” the president orated.

It seems there are at least two Obamas -- one who is wary of press disclosures of any leaks from the White House, and another who supports freedom of the press.

Even those Americans who still trust the president must have been jarred by his choice of who would conduct this review: Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversaw the Justice Department’s undermining of press freedom.

The New York Post’s Michael A. Walsh reminds us of what my First Amendment hero, Justice Hugo Black, once said: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government” (“The ‘Criminal’ Press,” Walsh, New York Post, May 23).

Even more jarring to continuing admirers of Obama, as well as his rising number of unbelievers, were the ground rules laid out for those representatives of major news outlets who were invited to privately discuss the proceedings with the attorney general.

Dig this: The meetings, concerning the administration’s government violations of the First Amendment, were to be “off the record.”

In other words, you citizens are not entitled to know what was said. How could a journalist, a member of what constitutionalists used to call “The Fourth Estate,” attend such a gathering, only to be utterly silenced?

Refusing to attend the meetings out of self-respect were the AP (of course), CBS News, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times and the New York Post.

So what are some of the news organizations that went, thereby agreeing to classify their reactions in accordance with the very government they were investigating?

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and ABC News, which, in an ironic bow to the First Amendment, “would press for the meeting to be held on the record” (“Fox News, other media outlets refuse off-record meeting with Holder,” foxnews.com, May 31).

But what if Attorney General Holder threw that demand back in ABC News’ face? Would its journalists still agree to gag their First Amendment rights at the investigation?

What all of this comes down to, as it may affect future administrations as well as generations of Americans, has been precisely underlined by Glenn Greenwald, an incisive journalist who would have given James Madison hope for the First Amendment’s future.

Writing about how “media outlets and journalists have finally awakened to the serious threat posed by the Obama administration to press freedoms, whistle blowing and transparency,” the question now, Greenwald demands, is:

“What, if anything, will they (journalists) do to defend the press freedoms they claim to value? ... Thwarting government attacks like these ... requires a real adversary posture, renouncing their subservience to government interests and fear of alienating official sources.

“It remains to be seen whether any of that will happen” (“Will journalists take any steps to defend against attacks on press freedom?” Greenwald, guardian.co.uk, May 29).

Greenwald goes on to question the future of a fundamentally free press: “If journalists aren’t willing to defend these freedoms, who do they think will?”

He then explains how the Founders made sure that our freedoms of belief and action would survive in an increasingly heterogeneous society:

“The design of the American founding was that abuses of power would be prevented only by various factions fighting for their prerogatives and against encroachment by other power factions.

“When it comes to attacks on press freedoms, it’s the responsibility of journalists, first and foremost, to fight against those attacks.”

According to The Huffington Post’s media reporter Michael Calderone, whom Greenwald cites in his commentary, some journalists don’t appear to be putting up much of a fight: “Several veteran reporters told The Huffington Post that it’s unlikely the press corps would band together in any collective action, such as walking out of the briefing room, to protest the administration’s treatment of the press” (“White House Reporters Unlikely to Stage Press Freedom Protest,” Calderone, huffingtonpost.com, May 22).

“It would be unprofessional,” CBS News radio correspondent Mark Knoller told Calderone.

As Ann Compton, the ABC News White House correspondent, explained: “White House briefings are not advocacy sessions,” later adding that the “strongest voices in journalism for protecting press freedoms remain the collective Washington bureau chiefs” and “independent reporters’ organizations, which do lobby for such issues as shield laws (protections for journalists who refuse to identify confidential sources without firm due process before a court of law).”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, whose Steering Committee I belong to, works to do just that, representing 51 media organizations in this crisis. But the federal shield law compromise it supports still provides openings for any administration to do what Obama and Holder have triumphantly done in controlling the press.

We need a shield law with teeth!

Reporters and editors also must organize to use the First Amendment for what the Framers intended: to prevent the government from protecting itself at the expense of keeping We The People ignorant and powerless. The United States is supposed to act in our name.

We freed ourselves from King George III, and we must insist on a free press so that we can be free again. And we must make sure candidates for every office agree to protect and represent the right that constitutes the very essence of who we are as Americans: freedom of speech.

(Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.)

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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Article comment by: Rosemarie Babcock

Frank Lee Confused, that's a good question. But alas, I have no clue who will replace Obama, unfortunately I cannot see into the future. I can only hope that the next President that is elected into office, not only has the experience and the knowledge needed for the job, but also has the American People's best intentions in their mind and heart.

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013
Article comment by: Frank Lee Confused

Rosemarie, in a few years Mr. Obama will be out of office. Who will replace him? Michele Bachmann?

Posted: Sunday, June 9, 2013
Article comment by: Rosemarie Babcock

I have no words. I can't believe people actually bought this idiot's BS for a second go round! I didn't buy it the first time, therefore, not the second either. It's amazing how far and wide stupidity runs. My Grandfather is probably doing summersalts in his grave by now. He fought for this country in WWII in the Battle Of The Bulge, went MIA, and almost lost his feet to gangrene. I hope and pray this once and Great USA can pull up our boot straps and get out of this big whole we're in. Personally, I think Obama has left us defenseless and backed in a corner where a lot of our foes are concerned. I almost wonder what his agenda was from the beginning. He just is so shady and has way too many terrorist ties, it's very scary, and not good or smart for a supposed American President. Just my opinion.

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: Obama Words Are Worth Heeding.

For instance his words in early 2008 he indicates
that to be a natural born citizen both your parents
must be US citizens at the time of your birth.

But he ignored his own words and went ahead
and signed up to be president in 2008.

Yet, again, knowing he is not qualify to be
president by his own words, he went and signed
up for the seat of president in 2012.

Worse yet, we've had three sitting congresses...
they all ignored Obama's own word and have
allowed him to remain in our presidential seat.

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: A taste of Chicago style politics

When liberals get a taste of Chicago-style politics, even from their anointed one, they are no different than conservatives or anyone else: don't like it one bit.

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

I'm back The wrong agency showed up so the IRS will be here tomorrow,what a relief..

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: Danny Smith

I listened to a collection of speeches and news briefings by Obumma and his top aides that that was put together over the term of his Presidency to date. Depending on who he is talking to dictates what he would say, contradictions and lies after lies in his own words. Oops almost left out that it was 3 hrs worth of lieing. I posted several years ago that one day even the far left liberal would wake up and wonder why he voted for him, that day is getting closer if you havn't already. The progressive liberal never will realize what a mistake he is because they are just to intelligent for their own good. Clint Eastwood was spot on when he said " Barrack Obumma is the biggest hoax placed on the American people in the history of our country". Is Glenn Beck still considered a nut conspiracy theorist now that they are becomming conspiracy facts?Golly, wonder if the NSA will get a copy of this. Nevermind forget everything I just wrote. What I meant to say was "Baaa Baa Baaaa BBaaa".

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

Put Journalists in jail,monitor all citizens,check
all purchases on credit cards,cameras on every corner,eyes in the sky,weather manipulation,cameras in your PC looking at you having wild sex.
Ya gotta trust them,they know whats good for
us.We don't need to be concerned it's all just
how the Gov has a little fun.
Excuse me I have someone at the door.Holly
Holly it's the FBI.gotta gotta go

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: Nux Man

The press has capitulated to The Cult of Barry since day one, and is now suffering the fruits of its decisions to put profits over purpose.
Since then the press has become part & parcel with the only two political ideologies this nation has - and why, with so much diversity, does this nation only have 2 political views? Because the populace is far easier to manage that way.
It would be the funniest joke on the planet, if it weren't so damn disgusting, that the press has just found out its been spied on for as long as us regular folks. They thought they were Barry's BFF, but instead they're his carpet.
The abomination of this Obama-nation will be a study in population control for centuries to come.

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: M J

barry's administration defense boils down to, "We're not malicious. We're just too uninformed and incompetent to control our own administration."

Posted: Thursday, June 6, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Jane

Take out the overt Tea Party sentiments and this article hits the nail on the head!

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