"We are outraged at what the Justice Department has done," said AP President Lou Boccardi last week. So are we. What it did was subpoena the phone records of AP reporter John Solomon so it could track down and identify the source on a story. The press is not free, and investigative journalism is mortally wounded, if the government can use reporters' records to hunt down and punish sources. Boccardi, you will remember, was the one news executive to tell off Congress last February when it grilled network news chiefs in a hearing on election-night coverage. His statement then applies equally to last week's subpoena: "Such an official government inquiry into essentially editorial matters is inconsistent with the First Amendment values that are fundamental to society." Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran was quick to defend AP: "Forced disclosure of sources or information threatens the constitutional right to a free press by undercutting the media's independence from government."
Sadly, the Justice Department's action is just the latest in a disturbing trend that includes a writer sitting in a Texas jail for refusing to turn over notes; Rep. Henry Waxman's dogged pursuit of an election-night internal video from NBC—the direct result of February's parade of news presidents; and an attempt by Sen. Richard Shelby to re-introduce draconian leak-plugging legislation. That law would likely lead to more subpoenas to identify sources and probably to the practice of "classifying" more documents to try to make them leak-proof.
We've heard from Lou Boccardi and Barbara Cochran. The entire journalistic community should add its voice and turn a loud protest into a thunderous rebuke. You could be next.
At the moment we began writing this editorial (Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 28), the pilot of a small Beechcraft aircraft in California had noticed a warning light that indicated its landing gear was not working. The landing gear ultimately turned out to be down, and what there was, apparently, was a warning-light problem. But, for about an hour, maybe more, the all-news networks carried a live shot of this small plane flying in circles against an azure sky. Around and around. Around and around on CNN. Around and around on MSNBC. Around and around on Fox News Channel. Why were all these news organizations delivering the video equivalent of a screen saver? The day before, another small craft's landing gear really didn't come down, and all-news television was there, and apparently ratings were quite good for that. It landed safely and without much drama.
The plane in Van Nuys landed safely, with even less drama.
And even before it touched down, we were thinking that, if we were 21, we wouldn't choose television journalism as a career.