Good-Bye, First Amendment: Reporter’s Losing Fight to Save Press Freedom Endangers American Journalism

Long gone are the days of protected sources and journalists who trafficked in secrets—instead, everyone’s afraid to talk and reporters face jail.

'New York Times' reporter James Risen participates in a news conference where he and other journalists and journalism advocates talked about the Justice Department’s pursuit of Risen’s confidential sources, at the National Press Club on Aug. 14 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Smodevilla/Getty Images)

Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

Armed with 100,000 signatures and famed talk-show host Phil Donahue, a coalition of press freedom advocates confronted the Justice Department on Thursday in defense of New York Times reporter James Risen. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s refusal to reveal his sources for an incident he wrote about in 2006 that details a botched CIA operation means Risen could face jail time or steep fines.

“Risen published a very important story about our runaway intelligence agency,” Donahue told TakePart as he stood in front of the Justice Department’s offices in Washington, D.C.

People like Risen “should be put on a pedestal,” Donahue said. Instead, “we have an administration that thinks he should be put in prison.... It’s really shameful.”

The petition asks the Justice Department to “halt all legal action against Mr. Risen and to safeguard the freedom of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.” The groups behind the petition include the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and Roots Action, among many others.

When accepting the petition, Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to answer a question about whether the agency would take it under consideration, saying only, “I’m not here to make a statement.”

While the threat of jail or fines remains, Attorney General Eric Holder said last spring that as long as he is in his current post, “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.”

Because the Supreme Court declined to review Risen’s case earlier this summer, he is left with no other legal options to fight back. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Risen to cooperate with a government subpoena seeking information about his sources for the book he wrote, State of War.

At a news conference, Risen, who has vowed to go to jail before he reveals his sources, spoke out about the issue.

“It’s really not about me,” he said, thanking the attendees at the conference for their support. “It’s about some basic issues that affect all journalists and Americans.”

“The Justice Department and the Obama administration are the ones who turned this into a fundamental fight over press freedom,” Risen said, when they argued in court that there is “no such thing as a reporter’s privilege.”

“They turned this case into a showdown over the First Amendment,” he added.

Risen intends to keep on fighting, buoyed by his support for the cause. “The real reason I’m doing this is for the future of journalism,” he said.

In the process of fighting back, first against the Bush administration and now the Obama administration, Risen has become the poster child for a much broader battle about the future of investigative journalism. If the Justice Department fines or jails Risen, it will have a toxic effect on the fourth estate, critics say.

The legal precedent the case sets has already made it more difficult for reporters to do their job.

“The relentless and by all appearances vindictive effort by two administrations to force Jim Risen into betraying his sources has already done substantial and lasting damage to journalism in the United States,” Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Barstow said in a statement earlier this week. “I've felt the chill firsthand. Trusted sources in Washington are scared to talk by telephone, or by email, or even to meet for coffee, regardless of whether the subject touches on national security or not.”

More than a dozen other Pulitzer winners put out statements of support this week.

To ensure that Risen and all other journalists are free to gather information and keep those in power accountable, Congress needs to pass a shield law granting them protection, argued Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“Now more than ever, it’s time for Congress to pass a meaningful shield law,” Leslie said. It’s not because reporters are above the law but because “journalists need that independence to truly hold the government accountable to the people.”

Donahue, who spoke at both the Justice Department and the news conference, warned about the current age of “corporate media.”

These media companies “don’t want to rock the boat,” Donahue said. “They are the boat.” That’s why, he added, “now is the time for more of the journalism that James Risen is doing.”

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