Op-ed: Three little words

  • By Bob Franken
  • Thursday, August 10, 2017 3:17pm
  • Opinion

At the beginning of my reporting career, I covered a federal judge hearing a civil suit against National Guardsmen that made it to his court several years after the Kent State killings. The judge refused to allow transcripts of grand jury testimony from earlier criminal proceedings into evidence. Grand juries are supposed to be secret, he ruled, and allowing their deliberations into the record would mean they’d become public.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective — I had gotten my hands on the transcripts from sources I won’t identify to this day. Each evening, as a local TV reporter, I’d do live shots about the material that his honor had suppressed that day, and then read on the air what was relevant in the text. It infuriated the judge. I know that because I was summoned to his chambers: “I need for you to tell me where you got these transcripts. From whom?”

“I can’t” I replied. He continued, “You know, I can throw you in jail.” My response was polite, but curt: “Go ahead. Make me a star.” He decided not to pursue it. Maybe that’s why I never became a star.

Decades later, little has changed. Come to think of it, it’s gotten worse. We’re now at the point of open warfare against reporters and their duty to protect the sources who have anonymously revealed information that Americans have a right to know. Make that a need to know.

To say the least, President Donald Trump makes no bones about his contempt for journalists and his fury at the leaks that make his time in office a constant embarrassment. He has railed against the disclosures of classified material, but he really means anything that presents him in an unfavorable light, and there’s plenty of that.

Now his “beleaguered” attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is desperately trying to save his job by announcing a prosecutorial investigation to identify any and all leakers. That includes “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.”

The policies to which he refers severely restrict the Department of Justice from taking action that requires newspeople to disclose their sources under threat of imprisonment.

Over the years, I have refined my response to such official demands. It’s much shorter now — three words, actually. On Twitter, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd put it a lot more elegantly: “If DoJ media source threat is real (I assume it’s not; just a show presser to please WH) then I look forward to ignoring that subpoena.” That’s succinct, but not as succinct as mine, which is less Chuck Todd and more Anthony Scaramucci as to what they can do about their subpoena.

The reasons for insisting on protecting the sources on stories that simply displease politicians are obvious: The misbehavior our leaders are trying to hide, whether it’s personal or corrupt, has no business being hidden. That applies to almost all official secrets, too. First of all, information about the inner workings of our government is grossly overrestricted, oftentimes because public servants want to keep us from knowing about their misdeeds. Second, if I have found out about something, you can bet that other countries’ intelligence agencies already know it. Most importantly, the classified documents camouflage actions of our leaders that seriously threaten our civil liberties or mask irresponsibility. The constitutional role of media is to pull apart the veil so that the citizens of our democracy can see inside and make informed decisions about the ones we elect.

It’s not just Donald Trump. Leaks enrage every president. Each administration has tried to tighten the screws. Barack Obama was hardly an angel when it came to crossing the line with reporters; Trump is stomping all over it. The First Amendment is just advisory in his mind, and he’s chosen to ignore the advice.

All we can do is continue to aggressively cover him and use some variation of my three-word response. I’ve used it before, and will proudly use it again. And there are other suggestions where that came from.

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