The AP Case and the Importance of the Fourth Estate

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In an era in which billionaires pillage major newspapers with impunity, it may be easy to forget that the media has traditionally played a vital role in American democracy — that of the Fourth Estate. The phrase means that the media is supposed to act as a check and balance on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media is supposed to prevent the emergence of a government that is so powerful that it can trample the rights of individual Americans.

This is what’s at stake in the Justice Department’s commandeering of phone records from The Associated Press. The Obama Administration is going further than even the Nixon Administration in seeking to muzzle the media. The right to break news stories without revealing the source is central to the ability of the media to fulfill a sacred obligation. Younger journalists today may not realize the importance of this fight because they didn’t live through the Watergate scandal or The New York Times’ decision to print the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government had engaged in a pattern of deceit about the war in Vietnam. But the lessons remain the same: if the media do not put up a howl of protest every time an American administration crosses the line and seeks to prevent the media from printing or broadcasting news on the basis of leaked information, the government will continue to push until the media is defenestrated.

The Founding Fathers were wary of a king’s control of the media, so much so that they made press freedom an element of the First Amendment, not the second or third. The amendment reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The framers of the Constitution believed that if new U.S. citizens did not enjoy a free media, they would be subjected to the same type of treatment to which King George had subjected them.

Today’s corporate media owners are often not as aggressive in defending this freedom as their predecessors (usually families who were committed to a broad role for the media) because it does not seem relevant to their desire to earn profits from their journalistic assets and capture more eyeballs on their websites and their Facebook accounts. But in the few pockets of high-principled journalism that remain, it’s clear that the Obama Administration has gone too far. If it can find out who told The AP about a failed terror operation in Yemen, then it can arrest and imprison that individual or those individuals, as it did the Army private who leaked the Wikileak papers. That would create a chilling effect in which fewer people with access to sensitive information will be brave enough to come forward with it. Journalistic organizations will think twice, and a third and fourth time, about running with information that may be important but that will land them in hot water with prosecutors, rather than courts, for whom catching bad guys is more important than press freedom. There will be a pernicious and corrosive impact on American society and American freedom if the administration does not pay a steep political and public relations price for what it has done to The AP.

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