December 4, 2020

Reporters See Chilling Effect From Justice Dept. Inquiries

President Obama’s conciliatory gesture toward the press this week — a review of Justice Department investigations involving journalists — struck some national security reporters as closing the door after the sources have already bolted.

In announcing the review in his speech on Thursday, the president said he was troubled that recent investigations, which involved the extensive tracking of a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, and the seizing of phone records at The Associated Press, “may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”

Journalists say that chill has already set in. Jeremy Scahill, who writes about national security for The Nation, said that some sources who used to agree to encrypted chats and off-the-record conversations have recently stopped feeling comfortable with these terms.

“At times it seems that being a Luddite may be the safest way to do serious national security reporting in a climate where there appears to be an intensifying war on serious journalism,” Mr. Scahill wrote in an e-mail.

Noah Shachtman, editor of’s Danger Room blog, said that sources had told him to stay away in the recent climate of leak prosecutions.

“There’s one source I have to run into ‘by accident’ at some public function who before I could just contact directly,” Mr. Shachtman said.

James Bamford, author of the 1983 best seller “The Puzzle Palace” about the National Security Agency, said these latest leak cases make it increasingly difficult to establish new source relationships and that affects his reporting over all.

“It’s important to get this information out there that doesn’t come through a press release, through the front door of the White House or the Pentagon,” Mr. Bamford said. “Far more information comes through a side door or a back door.”

Many reporters found themselves spooked by the extent of the government’s investigation of Mr. Rosen, Fox News’s chief Washington correspondent. This week, The Washington Post reported on a 36-page affidavit which detailed just how much information the government had been gathering about conversations between an unnamed reporter, who turned out to be Mr. Rosen, and Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a government employee.

The affidavit, a request for e-mails from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, provided minute-by-minute details about what time both men came and left the State Department and the length of their phone conversations down to the second and also took the unusual step of labeling the reporter a potential “co-conspirator” in the leak of classified information about North Korea’s nuclear program.

In a memo to his staff this week, Roger Ailes, the chief executive of Fox News, said, “We reject the government’s efforts to criminalize the pursuit of investigative journalism and falsely characterize a Fox News reporter to a federal judge as a ‘co-conspirator’ in a crime,” and that “we will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth.”

Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University and a writer for Quartz, said that in the 30 years he has lived on and off in Washington, he has never found journalists to be so skittish about being under the government’s watchful eye.

“It’s so bad that there’s a gallows humor that has sort of emerged out of this,” Mr. Meyer said. “You see journalists at parties, and you joke about ‘How is the investigation going?’ ” People just assume they’re being investigated, and it’s not a good feeling.”

He said that he was “highly skeptical” of President Obama’s announcement. “One would think he would have done that months or years ago when these investigations were authorized.

In his speech, President Obama said that as part of its review the Justice Department would “convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns.” Bruce D. Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the announcement “a welcome development,” but he remained cautious about what might actually result from these talks.

“We would want to come out of any such dialogue with an acknowledgment from the government that a reporter does not commit a crime when asking for information,” he said. “The second objective would be that the government honor its duties to notify the news media when it seeks journalists’ records. That will give the news media the proper opportunity to challenge those requests in court.”

The announcement is not likely to change the news media’s suspicion that it is under assault.

Jane Mayer, a staff writer with The New Yorker who has reported on national security, said during the Bush administration, she had to start reminding herself that “the ‘e’ in e-mail stands for “evidence” and instead, met people in person to talk about topics that are touchy.” She added that “the surprise has simply been that Obama’s administration has continued, and even accelerated the crackdown on leaks.”

Some journalists think that some of these confrontations between journalists and government sources could have been avoided. Jack Shafer, a Reuters media columnist, published an article called “What was James Rosen thinking?” that questioned why the correspondent did not try harder to protect his source. He said Mr. Rosen should not have used e-mail, not visited the State Department’s offices and not timed his departure from the building at a time so close to his source. He also questioned what purpose publishing the information served.

“Boiled to its essence, the story says the U.S. has penetrated North Korean leadership,” Mr. Shafer wrote. “He would have been less conspicuous had he walked into the State Department wearing a sandwich board letter with his intentions to obtain classified information and then blasted an air horn to further alert authorities to his business.”

Still, Mr. Shachtman hopes that eventually sourcing will once again favor reporters. “This stuff is cyclical. There are times when one group is harder to talk to. There’s times when that group will be easier to talk to. Certain sources dry up,” he said. “Before you know it, those same sources spring back to life.”

Article source:

First: The Twitter Trap

I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I edit a newspaper that has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto. I get that the Web reaches and engages a vast, global audience, that it invites participation and facilitates — up to a point — newsgathering. But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.

Joshua Foer’s engrossing best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls one colossal example of what we trade for progress. Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” But Foer’s book reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices.”

Foer read that Apple had hired a leading expert in heads-up display — the transparent dashboards used by pilots. He wonders whether this means that Apple is developing an iPhone that would not require the use of fingers on keyboards. Ultimately, Foer imagines, the commands would come straight from your cerebral cortex. (Apple refused to comment.)

“This is the story of the next half-century,” Foer told me, “as we become effectively cyborgs.”

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

I realize I am inviting blowback from passionate Tweeters, from aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty and from colleagues at The Times who are refining a social-media strategy to expand the reach of our journalism. So let me be clear that Twitter is a brilliant device — a megaphone for promotion, a seine for information, a helpful organizing tool for everything from dog-lover meet-ups to revolutions. It restores serendipity to the flow of information. Though I am not much of a Tweeter and pay little attention to my Facebook account, I love to see something I’ve written neatly bitly’d and shared around the Twittersphere, even when I know — now, for instance — that the verdict of the crowd will be hostile.

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

There is a growing library of credible digital Cassandras who have explored what new media are doing to our brains (Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, William Powers, et al.). My own anxiety is less about the cerebrum than about the soul, and is best summed up not by a neuroscientist but by a novelist. In Meg Wolitzer’s charming new tale, “The Uncoupling,” there is a wistful passage about the high-school cohort my daughter is about to join.

Wolitzer describes them this way: “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times.

Article source: