It has been an interesting week to be a journalist, a bad week for our government and a disturbing week for all of us. In case you haven’t been paying attention, three big government crises drove the news this week: Benghazi, the IRS and the federal investigation into The Associated Press’s phone records.
First came the re-ignition of the Benghazi crisis. The Obama administration finally relented and released nearly 100 pages of emails detailing how and why the talking points on Benghazi were changed. It looks like it comes down to a spat between the State Department and the C.I.A. The administration did not do a good job in the days immediately after the attack and they’ve done a worse job since holding someone accountable for the editing of the talking points. The entire scandal comes down to what our government knew about the attacks, when they knew it and why it took so long to communicate it to the American people.
Then came news that the IRS subjected applications for tax-exempt status from Tea Party and other conservative groups to a greater degree of scrutiny than those from other organizations. Right now there are at least three congressional committees investigating the IRS, and the FBI is looking into potential civil rights violations. The acting director of the IRS resigned. It will be interesting to see if anyone is indicted due to this scandal.
Finally came the news that federal investigators of national security leaks secretly seized two months of phone records from reporters and editors of The Associated Press — a nonprofit cooperative owned by its contributing newspapers, radio, and television stations in the United States, all of which provide stories to the AP and use material written by its staff journalists. The Muscatine Journal is a member of The Associated Press and we both contribute stories to AP and use AP stories in our paper.
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On Monday, Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of the AP, called the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
And while, unfortunately, it is perfectly legal for federal investigators to monitor the media’s phone calls — and, your phone calls too — in the case of monitoring news outlets there were guidelines put in place years ago on how those investigations should be conducted. In this case, the government ignored the guidelines.
On a week like this one I am reminded that the founders of our great democracy felt it was important to make Freedom of the Press part of the first amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights. As the old saying goes, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We have a lot of good, caring people in local, state and national government. But there are always some who are corrupted by position and power. It is our job to keep our leaders honest by continuing to cover council meetings, school board meetings, legislatures, criminal investigations and other government functions. Leaders and readers may not always like journalists, and our industry can’t investigate everything that is going on; but weeks like this one remind me of how important a free press is to an open society, as well the importance of our obligation to readers. We’ll work hard to live up to that obligation, whether the government cooperates or not.