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Journalists and their rights
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Who is a journalist? What rules should protect reporters from excessive government efforts to track down their sources and compel their testimony in legal proceedings?
Those questions have taken center stage in Washington. They started emerging in May, with revelations the Obama administration secretly sought the phone records of Associated Press reporters who had broken a story about a terrorist conspiracy in Yemen. The Justice Department even accused a Fox reporter of being a criminal "co-conspirator" in the release of classified information about North Korea's nuclear program.
Then came the blowback. Politicians from both parties denounced such heavy-handed tactics, and the administration retreated. The president gave a speech saying, "I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable."
Attorney General Eric Holder conceded to NBC that "things have gotten a little out of whack" and no reporter should fear being "branded a criminal" for simply doing her or his job.
Holder's changes in Justice Department guidelines are due July 12, and the president has endorsed legislation to create a "media shield law" that would codify on a federal level some of the safeguards journalists already enjoy in 49 states. So the time is ripe for a national debate.
Many years ago, we both served on panels of journalists that vetted applications for press credentials to cover Congress. The essential qualification really was: Do you work for a recognized news organization?
That standard has long been obsolete. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, almost anyone with a cellphone or a laptop can be a generator of information. You don't have to work for anybody but yourself.
That's a healthy development, but it poses a huge problem. If the Attorney General and Congress are revising rules that apply to legitimate journalists -- but not to everyone with a Facebook account -- then a line has to be drawn somewhere.
As journalism professor Jay Rosen of NYU told David Carr of The New York Times: "We are beginning to realize that journalists come in a variety of shapes and sizes and come with a variety of commitments."
Everyone is entitled to free speech. But journalists are entitled to an extra dimension of immunity from government intrusion only because they adhere to certain values and play such a vital role in holding the government accountable, as the president said.
Rules, however, are interpreted by real people in the real world. The over-zealous prosecutors in his own administration have to heed the president's words: "Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs."
And journalists have to understand that with rights come responsibilities. No privileges are absolute, and all journalists are also citizens who must take the requirements of national security and law enforcement very seriously.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.