When the government comes for journalists

This is what happens when executive power grows unchecked.

Hello Friday my old friend. Quick housekeeping before we jump in: After 3 months, and 70-straight issues, I’m taking next week “off” to recharge the batteries. So the next issue will be August 10. 

Attack on the press continues. The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reported yesterday how the Department of Homeland Security “recently instructed employees on how to arrest journalists and expose them to crowd suppressants like tear gas without being legally liable.” 

The fact that a governmental agency is arresting reporters for a) doing their jobs, and b) exercising their First Amendment rights, while at the same laying the legal groundwork for agents to use tear gas (which, by the way, affects the lungs; so, you know, not a great thing to be doing in the midst of a pandemic that targets the lungs) against its own citizens is ... I can’t think of the right word. Abhorrent? Dangerous? Fucked up? 

(Image via Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The Washington Post reported yesterday, too, that DHS

has compiled “intelligence reports” about the work of American journalists covering protests in Portland, Ore., in what current and former officials called an alarming use of a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors.

Over the past week, the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has disseminated three Open Source Intelligence Reports to federal law enforcement agencies and others, summarizing tweets written by two journalists — a reporter for the New York Times and the editor in chief of the blog Lawfare — and noting they had published leaked, unclassified documents about DHS operations in Portland. The intelligence reports, obtained by The Washington Post, include written descriptions and images of the tweets and the number of times they had been liked or retweeted by others.

The Trump administration has been railing against journalism from even before Trump was elected president. But he’s just grabbing the baton from President Obama, who, according to the AP

used the 1917 Espionage Act with unprecedented vigor, prosecuting more people under that law for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations combined. Obama’s Justice Department dug into confidential communications between news organizations and their sources as part of that effort.

A March 2016 Politico piece lays into Obama’s often hypocritical stance towards journalism, laying out the ways his administration poorly treated the press.  

And in a December 2016 New York Times opinion piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen, who fought a Bush-era subpoena (only to have that subpoena renewed under Obama) to give up a source’s identity wrote:

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases.

The point is this: as executive power has grown over the last couple of decades, so has the inherent tension between the government and journalists looking for the closest thing to truth. The challenge for journalists for the near future, as they face legal maneuvers from the executive branch,  will be how to navigate a court system packed with judges who agree with the Trumpian view. 

As a president who believes he’s above the law (or at the very least, Teflon) takes his antipathy out towards journalists, the needle moves from seemingly innocuous movements like putting reporters in holding pens during rallies or lying about the size of an inauguration, to directing one of the agencies under his purview to unlawfully arrest and gas journalists. 

Journalism, if not journalists, often looks like it’s on the ropes in a royal rumble. Body blows from an administration that not only lies to, but also gaslights reporters and Americans are followed by jabs from the very public journalism serves. 

For example, in a new Pew Research poll released yesterday, it found (emphasis mine)

that those who rely most on social media for political news stand apart from other news consumers in a number of ways. These U.S. adults, for instance, tend to be less likely than other news consumers to closely follow major news stories, such as the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 presidential election. And, perhaps tied to that, this group also tends to be less knowledgeable about these topics.

As of late last year, 18% of U.S. adults say they turn most to social media for political and election news. That’s lower than the share who use news websites and apps (25%), but about on par with the percent who say their primary pathway is cable television (16%) or local television (16%), and higher than the shares who turn to three other pathways mentioned in the survey (network TV, radio and print).

(Image via Pew Research)

As the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes:

Over time, people are conditioned to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” And then such leaders can do pretty much whatever they wish.

With the lies in a viral video, a president’s stamp of approval, and the confirmation that social media is how more and more Americans get their supposed “news,” we’ve moved a big step closer to that reality.

And we should be afraid.

Of course, the uppercuts come from the business side, as the media industry can’t parry the haymakers from Facebook and Google or loss of advertising revenue or vulture private equity firms or bloated venture capital raises or a fragmented audience or the loss of 11,000 jobs.

As the media industry (as well as our general society) dances on a knife’s edge, a government that treats the press as villains can only lead down a dark path. Democracy doesn’t die in darkness; it dies as the light slowly dims, step by step. 

The good news, I think, is that truth and facts still matter for a large percentage of Americans. And as we navigate this rough terrain, handling multiple society-shifting events simultaneously, telling the stories of abuse of powers and holding politicians and business leaders accountable is still an American ideal that is hard to crush.

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox. If you have tips or thoughts on the newsletter, drop me a line! Or you can follow me on Twitter. I am so grateful and humbled to watch this newsletter grow, which is solely because you all share it with your colleagues and on your social platforms. Have a great weekend and week ahead. Stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you on the other side of my little break (which also coincides with my and my daughter’s birthday; yes, we share a birthday). In the immortal words of Michael Kay: See ya!

Robert Tepper, “No easy way out”

Some interesting links

  • Media 2020: Rise of the Renaissance Creator (Medium)

  • A growing group of journalists has cut back on Twitter, or abandoned it entirely (Poynter)

  • New York Love Story: The Submarine Officer and the Beatles Cover Band (New York Times)

  • Emails and IMs from the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook and Google show how they think about acquiring companies — and it has little to do with the quality of a startup's product (Business Insider)

  • On Media-Thirst Guys, and the horrifying knowledge that you can only relate with people just as brain-sick as you. (On Posting)

  • Dozens Of Former “Ellen Show” Employees Say Executive Producers Engaged In Rampant Sexual Misconduct And Harassment (BuzzFeed)

  • Dunkin' to permanently close 800 US stores in 2020 (Boston.com)