Remember when the Obama administration had a relaxed and fruitful relationship with the media?
It shouldn't be too difficult to recall. The White House Correspondents Association held its annual dinner with President Obama in late April, when all sides gathered to break bread, tell stories, and laugh together… mostly at Republicans, of course. At the time, journalists warned that the relationship between the media and the government it supposedly held accountable had grown much too chummy, and the reporters were more concerned with their celebrity than their reporting. Tom Brokaw slammed the event, pointedly refusing to attend and asking, "Are we doing [the country's] business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?"
Less than a month later, the party is over. It's been raided by the Department of Justice, and the media suddenly seems a lot less interested in making the president the celebrity-in-chief, and a lot more focused on demanding accountability — now that they have a personal stake in doing so.
It started with the revelation that Justice had executed a warrant to seize phone records from the Associated Press' phone providers in a leak investigation. The leak in question was a very serious breach of national security, without a doubt. During an undercover operation against al Qaeda in Yemen, someone in the know told an AP reporter about it — and the CIA had to scramble to get its assets out of danger, while the AP held the story until the operation concluded. Had the leak gone to a less-responsible news organization (or elsewhere), intelligence agents could have been killed, and terrorists might have escaped. That certainly deserves investigation, and prosecution for the person who leaked the highly classified information.
However, the AP did cooperate in keeping the information quiet until the operation was over and all personnel were safe, and indeed until the White House was ready to announce the conclusion of the operation itself. According to the U.S. statute created in the aftermath of Watergate, investigators should have first asked the AP to produce the phone records for the reporter in question in the narrow time frame of the leak, and then negotiated the terms of a subpoena. Time was no longer an issue, and since the records belonged to the phone company and not the AP, neither was custody or access. Instead, the DoJ violated the statute by secretly seizing two months' worth of records for three offices, involving the work of dozens of reporters, in what clearly was a fishing expedition and a punitive reaction to the AP's efforts.
Bear in mind the significance of the AP in the news industry. It's the largest news organization in the world, feeding thousands of other media outlets and redistributing its own original content. The expansive dragnet sent a clear signal — once revealed — that even an organization as large as the AP couldn't protect sources from government snoops. That will have a dampening effect on garnering leads from legitimate whistle-blowers as well as those violating national-security restrictions.
It certainly could intimidate some journalists as well, but not as much as the Department of Justice's bizarre surveillance of Fox reporter James Rosen. To avoid having to comply with the statutes noted above, Justice went to court to argue that Rosen was a co-conspirator in an espionage case simply by doing what reporters do in Washington — flatter sources, set up private channels for communication, and get inside knowledge of government activities. Justice further claimed that Rosen was a "flight risk," which made it impossible for them to approach him for the investigation. Late yesterday, Ryan Lizza reported for the New Yorker that the government seized records for 32 different phone numbers in the Rosen probe, including Fox office numbers presumably used by multiple reporters.
That news dropped like a bombshell on the media, even among those normally inclined to support President Obama and his administration. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson ripped into the Justice probe of Rosen, writing that it was part of "a pattern that threatens to redefine investigative reporting as criminal behavior." Until Obama took office, the DoJ had used the 1917 Espionage Act just three times in the previous 40 years to prosecute a leak, including the notorious Pentagon Papers case. The Obama administration has brought six prosecutions in five years, yet the Rosen case marks the first time ever that the government had even argued that reporting qualified as a crime under the act. "Rosen has not been charged," Robinson noted, but "[e]very investigative reporter, however, has been put on notice."
These revelations could not have come at a worse time for the White House. With the interest in Benghazi peaking again — a Washington Post/ABC poll shows that 55 percent of Americans think the administration is covering up the truth — and the IRS scandal breaking into embarrassing serial revelations and congressional hearings, Obama and his team need a sympathetic media more than ever. Press secretary Jay Carney has had to handle a suddenly outraged press corps demanding answers and growing more persistent when not receiving any.
For instance, the White House has changed its story at least five times on who knew what and when on the IRS' targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, and suddenly reporters are keeping score. Politico's Reid Epstein offered readers a timeline of Carney stories to prevent confusion. National Journal's Ron Fournier wrote that he "desperately want to believe [White House strategist Dan] Pfeiffer" when he issued denial after denial on Sunday talk shows on all of the scandals facing the Obama administration, but "the White House can't be trusted." At the Huffington Post, NBC analyst Howard Fineman scoffed at the idea that the White House knew nothing about the IRS' activities. Given the talent in the West Wing, "it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati," Fineman concluded.
With the goodwill in the briefing room dissipating quickly, one might predict that the White House would try to woo the professional journalists back. Instead, Carney went after CBS News reporter Major Garrett, arguing about what questions Carney considered legitimate. When Garrett asked whether he could ask about Kathleen Sebelius' attempt to raise funds from companies her department regulates, Carney equated that with birtherism. Almost immediately afterward, NPR's Ari Shapiro noticed that a group of "lefty columnists" were ushered into the West Wing, presumably for some briefing to which the White House Correspondents Association members won't be privy.
That's a long fall from grace for the White House in the short period of time since the mutual-admiration society of the WHCA's gala dinner and celebrity red-carpet evening. The scandalous snooping on journalists attempting to keep government accountable through the exercise of the First Amendment may or may not be the most significant of the scandals that the Obama administration faces at the moment — but it's the key scandal that will motivate the press to report more aggressively on all of the others. Circling the wagons with its ideological allies in the opinion media shows that the White House may have reached the same conclusion.