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Federal investigators’ seizure of the AP’s phone records draws journalists’ ire

Much of the media industry is understandably upset by the recent news that federal investigators secretly confiscated two months’ worth of phone conversation from the Associated Press. Many critics have argued that it is a breach of the First Amendment and disregards freedom of the press. Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder claims that the seizure of journalist conversations from offices, homes and cellphones was a matter of national security, but he hasn’t elaborated on what is specifically being investigated.

Since this is an issue that has an impact on all media professionals, inVocus asked several past and current journalists to weigh in:

Q: Federal investigators were recently found to have seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press. As a media professional, what is your general reaction? Do you feel, as the AP put it, that it’s a “serious interference with A.P.’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news?” How does this bode for the future of journalism? 

Bob Papper, professor and chair at Hofstra University’s journalism, media studies and public relations department

“Hopefully, the warranted outcry over this outrageous action will prevent this kind of government over-reach in the future. It’s critical for the public to understand that the government wasn’t involved in this action because anyone was concerned about terrorist action; this was government concerned about American citizens talking with the media.  No one should be afraid to do that, and no government – Democrat or Republican – has any business trampling on privacy or whistleblowing for the sake of protecting itself from embarrassment.”

Mark Obbie, freelance law and business writer

“The government’s overreaching in this case is an appalling breach of Justice Department policy and, more important, the principles of democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more oppressive government tactic than monitoring whom we journalists talk to. Independent journalism depends on confidentiality in the reporting process. The government has no business intruding in that, even when it claims it’s investigating a crime (which is really just a way to intimidate government officials to keep quiet about what the government is actually up to). I applaud the AP for biting back and hope that the courts support it. Pushing back means the DOJ might think twice before doing this the next time.”

Menachem Wecker, Chicago-based freelancer

“My general reaction is one of disgust and trepidation. As I believe the AP has stated, there doesn’t seem to be any justification for collecting information from so many records from so many different phones. I also think that the general public should care about this. It’s easy to imagine that politicians often get upset about how they are covered in the news – someone trying to cover something up won’t celebrate it being exposed to sunlight – but reporters represent the public in many ways, and if their access to stories is denied, or if they are threatened or followed, as in this case, that’s a direct assault on the public’s ability to stay informed. I’m not sure how this bodes for the future of journalism, though; that’s a big question. I think reporters are going to continue to pursue stories regardless of the pressure put on them.”

Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s Focus on the Media, where our panel of media experts discusses this topic and its impact on newsgathering.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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