Will somebody please explain why a reporter is not allowed to impersonate an FBI agent, but it’s OK if an FBI agent impersonates a reporter? It’s obvious why no one should be allowed to dishonestly pass him- or herself off as a law-enforcement official, but it also should be apparent why any cop, federal or local, should not be pretending to be a newsperson. It undermines our credibility, and given the sloppy performance of too many in our business, we don’t have a lot of credibility to spare.
Let’s face it: Someone with sensitive material about our government or institutions is frequently scared to share that information with the police. Since our job is to monitor public officials — and for that matter, corporations — the public’s need to know is served only if those with vital material can trust that those they are sharing it with are not in cahoots with the bad guys.
It doesn’t seem to stop overzealous investigators from crossing that line. FBI Director James Comey just disclosed another case of such disdain when he admitted that an investigator in 2007 lied in saying he was working for The Associated Press while trying to build a case against a 15-year-old suspected of threatening to bomb his high school. The procedure even now would be, according to Comey, “lawful and in a rare case, appropriate.”
No, it wouldn’t be appropriate. First of all, there were so many other ways to appeal to the kid’s ego, which was the purpose of the deception. All it would take would be a little ingenuity. The FBI guy was lazy. In truth, though, his leadership doesn’t really like that someone is watching so closely. Authorities mostly consider the news media to be the nuisance media for getting in the way of their pursuits.
Another overzealous agent from the very same FBI accused Fox News reporter James Rosen (a friend of mine, by the way) of being a “co-conspirator,” which is to say a criminal, while tracking down leaks of classified information that formed the basis of a Rosen report. Only when it became public did Attorney General Eric Holder apologize.
So far, Holder has not decided what to do about the threat to put former New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen behind bars for refusing to testify against a former CIA operative, the alleged source of highly sensitive classified information for Risen’s reporting on American efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Risen says he will go to jail before he’ll discuss his sources. He shouldn’t be faced with that choice. But so far, he is.
Holder is part of the Obama administration, which is unfriendly to the media in the extreme. Shutting out reporters from information and access has become the norm at this White House. Of course, journalists are considered fair game by many if not most law-enforcement officials. You see it in the rough handling reporters got in Ferguson, Missouri, when they were there braving the violence to get their story. They were interrupted at every turn, often forcefully, by heavily armored police who were striking out in rage at anybody who would have the audacity to show what they were doing. As someone who has covered a ton of these dangerous confrontations, I can tell you that the biggest danger to those of us in media is all too often bullying cops who will simply arrest or rough up anybody who dares to report on what’s going on.
Yes, many of you reading this will share a low regard for media. All too often we fall short and distort. But the responsible ones need to be free to do what we’re supposed to, and that’s to keep our public officials’ feet to the fire. The same ones who go out of their way to stop us. It’s not hard to see why.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.