Was Last Week a TV Show in Washington?

Each Wednesday, IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT features analysis of a news story from the week.

If Washington ever came close to looking like the Washington we see portrayed on television shows like House of Cards and Scandal, it was last week. With each day came a new “scandal”; first it was details surrounding the Benghazi attack; then we learned that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative political groups; and as if that wasn’t enough, the public also learned that the Justice Department secretly seized phone records of Associated Press journalists.

The Washington Post reported that “the three controversies that confront the White House look like a tea party fever dream” and went on to say that “some are also raising hyperbolic comparisons to such epic scandals as Watergate...”

The Obama administration quickly responded to all three controversies. According to the Post,

“The White House released 100 pages of e-mails relating to the Benghazi attacks; Obama announced the resignation of the acting IRS director and pledged further action to correct the abuses; and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appeared on Capitol Hill to defend his agency — at one point, going so far as to tell Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a frequent antagonist, that his conduct was ‘unacceptable. It is shameful.’”

As details continue to emerge on all three fronts, I’d like to focus on the seizure of AP records and the implications that our responses have. There’s an apparent juxtaposition here that's hard to navigate as an average citizen. On one side, we are told that this was a matter of national security, and really, we should be thankful that the government was looking out for its citizens.

Attorney General Eric Holder said, “I have to say this is among, if not the most serious, among the top two or three most serious leaks I have ever seen. It put the American people at risk…And trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.”

Protecting the American people sounds like a noble justification. But as details emerge, it’s looking like the means to this end were less than noble. According to Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt, the organization held the story in question for five days after the White House and CIA warned that publishing the story would create a national security risk.  But perhaps the issue here is not what was done, but how it was done.

Appearing on Face the Nation, Pruitt said that the AP doesn’t question the Justice Department’s right to seize phone records, but what it does question is the way the Department conducted its effort, which he described as "so sweeping, so secretively, so abusively and harassingly overboard.”

President Obama acknowledged the juxtaposition we face when, after defending the actions of the Justice Department, he said, “the flip side of it is we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function.”

In response to Obama’s verbal commitment to better protect the press, the New York Times editorial board wrote,

“For more than 30 years, the news media and the government have used a well-honed system to balance the government’s need to pursue criminals or national security breaches with the media’s constitutional right to inform the public. This action against the AP as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press outlined in a letter to Mr. Holder, ‘calls into question the very integrity’ of the administration’s policy toward the press.”

Whose side are we to take? I’d argue it’s not a side that we must choose, but a principle that we must uphold. It’s too easy to point fingers and name names, and that won’t fix things or prevent them from happening again. Headlines that scathingly refer to the  president, Eric Holder, or anyone else involved miss the point. The office or institution is what must be focused on, not necessarily their occupants.

The Justice Department’s handling of this situation is disappointing, but it gives us a great opportunity to consider the role of the press, and what its relationship with government should look like. As Hilary Sherratt wrote earlier this year for Shared Justice, “Leadership is not never doing anything wrong; it must be acknowledging mistakes as mistakes and taking the appropriate steps to fix them.”

The First Amendment ensures freedom of speech and the press. According to the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Citizenship, “Freedoms of speech and association are necessary civil rights since they are two of the means by which citizens exercise individual and organized influence in society.”

  Attorney General Eric Holder (Right). 

Attorney General Eric Holder (Right). 

As President Obama acknowledged, the “flip side” is that government has a responsibility to protect its citizens. Does this mean a “whatever it takes” mentality? I don’t think it does. Instead, there are measured, responsible ways to ensure that government is effectively protecting us from national security threats.

We are right to advocate for legislation that will protect reporters. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it will support a federal shield law for confidential sources.  Though seen as an ironic move by many onlookers, and perhaps a band aid on a larger wound, I think this is a step in the right direction.

There must be a way to balance national security issues (and more broadly, interests that the public has a right to know about) with freedom of the press. It’s unconstitutional for the press to be intimidated or silenced, and in the same regard, for incredibly secretive and uninvited intrusion into journalists’ records to occur.

If nothing else, the events of the last week present an opportunity for conversation. What does this balance look like? Who do we hold responsible? What role should the press have? What role shouldgovernment have? CPJ’s Guideline on Government says, “It’s legitimate-even a duty-to criticize unjust and bad government policies and public officials, but this should be done by calling government to fulfill its proper task and high purpose.”

Don’t get stuck in the drama of the “scandal”, because unlike a 30 minute television show, there’s no clear resolution unless we work at it. It’s not enough to criticize our leaders and stop there. So begin thinking, start conversations, ask questions and hold our leaders accountable- it’s your duty. 

-Katie Thompson is the Online Editor at the Center for Public Justice. Born and raised in New Jersey, a former college student in Boston, and now a young professional in Washington, D.C., she's fairly sure she likes the East Coast. And New York sports.