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Real Patriots' Acts

Committed to the First Amendment 5/16/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The Associated Press, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and others want journalists to create a Washington lobby to push for legislation to protect access to information. We think it's essential. Since 9/11, access has been increasingly smothered by the blanket invocation of "homeland security."

Certainly, we all want a secure homeland. But we should all feel insecure about the government's desire to keep more and more information from scrutiny. The organization with the three-letter initials beginning with C that informed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the extent of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses was CBS, not the CIA.

Journalists have ceded too much real estate in terms of Freedom of Information Act requests in the wake of 9/11. The fear now is that, as more departments become "coordinated" with Homeland Security, similar requests of them will meet the same fate.

Invoking an Orwellian image that sadly does not seem off the mark, Associated Press President Tom Curley said in a speech two weeks ago, "The government's power is overwhelming. Its agents are armed and authorized to use force if they have to."

While some journalists may be conflicted over lobbying the government, their interest here is clear and pressing and is in concert, not conflict, with the core of their professsional mission: to get facts and inform the public. Some journalists piously believe the public isn't interested in the impediments to the news process. We disagree. We think the public is simply unaware, and the press is responsible for that.

It's not surprising that the AP has publicly taken the lead in this cause. Former AP President Lou Boccardi stood up to the Hill when the rest of the network news presidents were submitting to their public flogging over miscalls of the "everybody blew it" 2000 elections.

Maybe it's something in the water, or maybe it's that AP reporters have their share of first-hand experience with strong-arm tactics that leads to this proposal. The feisty Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has also been doing some heavy lifting on the issue.

The AP already fired the first shot in what should become an ongoing battle against government censorship. Along with Gannett, it has filed suit against the U.S. Marshal Service for seizing tape recorders from reporters who were just trying to cover a speech by Antonin Scalia. The Supreme Court justice later said it was all a mistake. But the damage was already done. The mistake would be for the AP and Gannett not to use the incident to galvanize support.

"A fight is what this is. A fight is what our system of government expects it to be," said Curley in pitching the new advocacy group. Exactly.

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