Veteran D.C. journalist Jonathan Alter is releasing his second book on the Obama administration this week—The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. The Scrapbook will be as content to ignore this publishing event as we were Alter’s 2010 volume, The Promise: President Obama, Year One. You don’t have to read far past the cover to know you’re getting the independent thinking of a court stenographer. However, it is mildly diverting that Alter told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd last week that he’s “on fire” over the Obama administration’s decision to assert in a court filing that a Fox News reporter was a criminal “co-conspirator” with a government leaker and to otherwise spy on the press.
We’re pleased that the likes of Alter and Dowd have woken up to the fact that the Obama administration likes to throw its weight around, and we don’t doubt their sincerity in standing up for a free press. However, it’s an indictment of the Obamaphile media that they have only now realized the extent of the problem. Indeed, Beltway media and political elites have been squirrely on speech issues for years now.
Case in point: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently raised eyebrows when he said he supported a media shield law to protect journalists from government intrusion—an idea pushed by newspaper publishers, TV networks, and the rest of the mainstream media—but he wasn’t sure whether bloggers would qualify. In other words, Durbin’s all for free speech—provided the government gets to hand out reporting licenses. Durbin previously tried to amend a proposed media shield law—the “Free Flow of Information Act of 2009”—so it provided no protections to bloggers and other citizen journalists. The bill didn’t pass, but nary a concern was raised in establishment media circles when Durbin’s amendment stood a chance of becoming the law of the land.
Similarly, when a reporter was thrown in jail during the Valerie Plame witch hunt, this was treated by the media as an unfortunate necessity rather than an outrage—because they hoped it would lead to malefactors in the Bush administration. Recall that the big crime at stake in revealing covert CIA agent Plame’s identity was violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act—a 1982 law opposed at the time by the New York Times (“a prosecutor could use the bill against reporters and news organizations for exposing crimes and abuses”). But once the Plame incident became an opportunity to inflict political damage on the Bush administration, worries that the government was empowered to incarcerate journalists for doing their jobs fell by the wayside.
More broadly, it should be clear that the federal government increasingly views First Amendment protections—and not just those pertaining to the media—as roadblocks it can steamroll right over. Besides freedom of the press, for instance, the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion. The mainstream media were all in favor of that back when the issue du jour was the ingestion of hallucinogenic cactus buttons by Native Americans. More recently, they’ve been inclined to cheer for the other side, as the Obama administration targets Christian organizations bound by conscience and religious conviction to resist the contraceptive and abortifacient mandates in Obama-care. And elsewhere in this issue, Charlotte Allen details how the Justice Department took a break from sorting through reporters’ emails to send a letter telling the University of Montana—and by extension every other institution of higher learning—that they must adopt restrictive speech codes to root out sexual harassment.
In a world where liberals actually cared about the First Amendment, this kind of thing would be front-page news. Instead, the media routinely fail to stand up for the First Amendment except when compelled by self-interest.