Targeting of the AP is neither new nor illegal. Just outrageous.

AP logoA lot of outrage has been generated over the Department of Justice’s secret subpoena of the Associated Press’ phone records, and I share that outrage.

But what the DOJ did was not new and not illegal — it was, rather, the latest example of overreach by an administration that has demonstrated its contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. Which, of course, makes the Obama White House no different from (though more zealous than) most of its predecessors.

Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explains by dredging up a similar, if less sweeping, case from years past, and in the process does a good job of showing why it matters. If the press can’t promise sources anonymity, it can’t perform its role as a check on government.

An editorial in The New York Times endorses a long-stalled federal shield law that would provide journalists with greater protections than they now have with regard to protecting confidential sources — a move that President Obama is now pushing for.

But what does Obama care? As the Times points out, such a law probably would have made no difference in the AP scandal, since all the DOJ would have had to do was invoke one of the exceptions built into the bill.

The next time you hear someone say that the DOJ’s actions violated the First Amendment, run the other way. A century’s worth of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court holds that though the media have an enormous amount of protection under the First Amendment to publish or broadcast, they have no more rights than ordinary citizens when it comes to newsgathering.

Here is the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) explaining why it would be impossible to created a protected class of journalists who would enjoy an absolute right to protect their sources:

Liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

The reason that Eric Holder and company could secretly subpoena the AP’s phone records is because they can do it to anyone. It’s a matter not of the Constitution but of judgment — something the Obama administration has demonstrated very little of on this issue.

A new scandal worthy of our outrage

The problem with getting all worked up over the IRS scandal is that we don’t have any outrage left over for the stories that really matter.

Tonight we learn that President Obama’s Justice Department “secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into how news organizations gather the news.”

And here’s some context: a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post in February 2012 headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.”

This is the one to watch.

The problem is the reliance on anonymous sources

On Wednesday afternoon, as the media were having a nervous breakdown over the bombing suspect who was/was not in custody, I received a private message over Twitter from a friend who’s a longtime newspaper reporter:

They were saying they had multiple sources. You know what the problem is, they don’t name their sources. If you had no anonymous sources, then whoever gave them the information would be on the hook. Only in extreme cases do we use anonymous sources!

Leaving aside the obvious fact that this really is an extreme case, my friend is exactly right. Every time there’s a huge breaking news story, it seems, news organizations report developments that turn out to be wrong — and that were based on anonymous law-enforcement sources.

Maybe that could be justified a generation ago, when such leaks were used to develop reliable stories. But now the pressure to publish/broadcast/tweet immediately is so overwhelming that a bombshell from an anonymous source leads not to more reporting but, rather, to an immediate, breathless update.

CNN got most of the attention on Wednesday, and, as a repeat offender, it really ought to be more careful. The Associated Press got it wrong, too, and that matters because editors generally don’t double-check the AP — they’re paying for the service, after all, and the AP is treated as an extension of their own newsrooms.

The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and local TV and radio stations got it wrong, too. The Herald has a useful timeline on page 4 today. I couldn’t find it on the paper’s website, but I’ll add a link if someone has it.

So was the source or sources normally reliable, which is the argument we’re hearing from some of those who got burned? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s the reliance on anonymous sources that’s the problem, not whether those sources were right or wrong. That may be the way it’s always been done. But if Wednesday didn’t prove that there’s something wrong with the old model, then what will?

Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple has a good take on what happened Wednesday, including the full text of the FBI smackdown. At Poynter, Andrew Beaujon and Mallary Jean Tenore put together a Storify that tracks how the initial news and the embarrassing walkback played out on Twitter.

Boston Globe recycles a year-old AP story

The Boston Globe does some major recycling today by publishing a year-old story on the political battle over same-sex marriage. The story, by David Crary of the Associated Press, appears on page A11 of the print eReader edition* and begins:

Foes and supporters of same-sex marriage are gearing up for five costly and bruising statewide showdowns in the coming months on an issue that evenly divides Americans.

It’s an election year subplot sure to stir up heated emotions …

And yes, that would be the 2012 election year.

It turns out that Crary’s article ran on the free Boston.com site on March 8, 2012, under the headline “Bruising gay-marriage showdowns likely in 5 states.” The classics are classics for a reason, I guess.

Subplot: The story appears nowhere today at the paid BostonGlobe.com site. I had to look it up in the ePaper edition after being asked about it on Twitter by @NotSoNiceville. Isn’t BostonGlobe.com, which is a paid site, supposed to include every story in the print edition?

*Update: Eagle-eyed David Bernstein reports that the entire page A11 of the eReader edition is from March 8, 2012. So apparently this is a problem with the eReader edition only — not with the print edition, which only appears up here in Media Nation on Sundays.

Update II: From @BostonGlobePR: “Due to a production error, pages from 3/11/2012 were appended to today’s ePaper. The edition will be corrected and reprocessed.”

Update III: As commenter Bill Ritchotte noted earlier today, the Globe’s free Boston.com site posted an item from a syndication service called the Prudent Investor “reporting” that Nobel Prize-winning economist (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman had declared bankruptcy.

In fact, the Prudent Investor had been taken in by a satirical site called the Daily Currant. There’s a German angle as well. Mediaite has the details and Romenesko has an image of the Boston.com page before the item was taken down. For what it’s worth, I’m told Boston.com runs the Prudent Investor feed on autopilot.

Update IV (2:30 p.m.): I just received an email from Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg. She writes: “The post about Paul Krugman was an automatic feed on a partner website, FinancialContent.com, which Boston.com uses to provide stock and other financial data. The story did not originate with the Boston Globe or Boston.com, and we worked to get it taken down as soon as we heard about it from readers. We have asked FinancialContent.com to provide us with more information as to how this story was added into their financial news feed.”

Laura Crimaldi moves on to the AP

Laura Crimaldi

Congratulations and best wishes to Laura Crimaldi, who left the Boston Herald this week and will soon start a one-year temporary job at the Associated Press’ bureau in Providence, where she’ll focus on law enforcement and the legal system.

I’ve gotten to know Laura through her work with the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, for whom I occasionally contribute blog items. Laura is a director of the center, and has done a great job of re-energizing the blog.

Laura’s married to longtime Herald photographer Mark Garfinkel, who worked with Mrs. Media Nation at the Beverly Times back in the day. (The Times was later subsumed into the Salem News.) I don’t know if it’s a small world, but Greater Boston is definitely a small town.

More progress on the “M”-word

Robert Bertsche, a prominent First Amendment lawyer in Boston, passes along the latest news from the AP Stylebook Online (yes, I’m too cheap to subscribe):

dwarf The preferred term for people with a medical or genetic condition resulting in short stature. Plural is dwarfs.

midget Considered offensive when used to describe a person of short stature. Dwarf is the preferred term for people with that medical or genetic condition.

My 2004 edition of the AP Stylebook does not contain an entry for either word. Clearly the dwarfism community is making progress in its efforts to educate the public about the “M”-word.

In 2009, the New York Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote that the Times had concluded the “M”-word was offensive.

I discuss the rise and fall of the “M”-word in Chapter Seven of my book on dwarfism, “Little People.”