The role of a free press, it is often said, is to act as a watchdog over public officials and to sound the alarm over abuses of power. The recent news that government officials seized records of two months of phone calls from Associated Press lines raises serious questions about who is watching whom in a legal house of mirrors.
In what the news service’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news-gathering activities, the AP learned on May 10 that Justice Department officials had seized the phone records of both office and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, and of general AP office numbers in New York; Washington; and Hartford, Conn.; in addition to the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. Records for more than 20 different phone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists were seized for the months of April and May 2012. More than 100 journalists work in the offices where the phone lines were targeted, the news agency said.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt demanded the return of the phone records and the destruction of all copies.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
Only days later Pruitt said there had already been evidence of the intimidating effect that news of the government inspection of AP’s phone records was having on news sources.
“Officials that would normally talk to us and people we talk to in the normal course of newsgathering are already saying to us that they’re a little reluctant to talk to us,” Pruitt said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “They fear that they will be monitored by the government.”
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Photo: AP Images