At the beginning of my reporting career, I covered a federal judge hearing a civil suit against National Guardsmen that made it to his court several years after the Kent State killings. The judge refused to allow transcripts of grand jury testimony from earlier criminal proceedings into evidence. Grand juries are supposed to be secret, he ruled, and allowing their deliberations into the record would mean they’d become public.
Unfortunately, I had gotten my hands on the transcripts from sources I won’t identify to this day. Each evening, as a local TV reporter, I’d do live shots about the material that his honor had suppressed that day, and then read on the air what was relevant in the text. It infuriated the judge. I know that because I was summoned to his chambers: “I need for you to tell me where you got these transcripts. From whom?”
“I can’t” I replied. He continued, “You know, I can throw you in jail.” My response was polite, but curt: “Go ahead. Make me a star.” He decided not to pursue it. Maybe that’s why I never became a star.
Decades later, little has changed. Come to think of it, it’s gotten worse. We’re now at the point of open warfare against reporters and their duty to protect the sources who have anonymously revealed information that Americans have a right to know.
President Donald Trump makes no bones about his contempt for journalists and his fury at the leaks that make his time in office a constant embarrassment. He has railed against the disclosures of classified material, but he really means anything that presents him in an unfavorable light, and there’s plenty of that.
Now his “beleaguered” attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is desperately trying to save his job by announcing a prosecutorial investigation to identify any and all leakers. That includes “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.”
The policies to which he refers severely restrict the Department of Justice from taking action that requires newspeople to disclose their sources under threat of imprisonment.
The reasons for insisting on protecting the sources on stories that simply displease politicians are obvious: The misbehavior our leaders are trying to hide, whether it’s personal or corrupt, has no business being hidden. That applies to almost all official secrets, too. First of all, information about the inner workings of our government is grossly overrestricted, oftentimes because public servants want to keep us from knowing about their misdeeds. Second, if I have found out about something, you can bet that other countries’ intelligence agencies already know it. Most importantly, the classified documents camouflage actions of our leaders that seriously threaten our civil liberties or mask irresponsibility. The constitutional role of media is to pull apart the veil so that the citizens of our democracy can see inside and make informed decisions about the ones we elect.
The First Amendment is just advisory in Trump’s mind, and he’s chosen to ignore the advice.
Bob Franken is a nationally syndicated columnist.