The Press is Less and Less Protected in America: An Update from the Front Lines

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One for the “War on the Press” file. Back when the 2006 Press Freedom Rankings were released — with the U.S. placing a depressing 53rd — Mother Jones made mention of the plight of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the indicted-and-likely-to-be-jailed San Francisco Chronicle reporters who used leaked grand jury testimony to expose the Balco steroid scandal. Today, the New York Times hangs out with Fainaru-Wada and Williams’ lawyer, as she fights on behalf of Hearst employees, usually reporters, who are having their notebooks, phone logs, and personal correspondence forced open by the federal government. She does not see the plight of the press becoming any easier:

In the last 18 months, she says, her company has received 80 newsgathering subpoenas, for broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines. “But that was after the Judy Miller case,” she said, mentioning the case in which the former New York Times reporter went to jail to protect a source. “In the two years before that, we had maybe four or five subpoenas. We didn’t even keep track.”

And as for Fainaru-Wada and Williams, the lawyer says:

“This is the single biggest case I have ever been involved in,” she added. “In terms of the public’s right to know what the government does and doesn’t do, it is huge. If the government wins in this case, every reporter’s notebook will be available to the government for the asking….You won’t get the Watergate story, you won’t get the Pentagon Papers.”

In The Good Fight, Peter Beinart argues that America’s brightest policymakers in the early Cold War period realized that a strong American foreign policy required a thriving domestic polity. That is to say, in order to spread (or attempt to spread) an American vision abroad, the American public needed to be healthy and whole, with each member given an equal chance to a succeed and a set of rights that were respected and protected. One wonders if the Bush Administration needs a reminder: You make a less convincing argument for democracy to the Iraqis and Afghanis (and Iranians and Syrians) when you go around tossing the fourth estate in prison.

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