POLITICS
05/15/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Media Matters Not Sure The DoJ Was Wrong When It Violated AP Press Freedoms, According To Memo [UPDATE]

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By now, you've probably heard that the Department of Justice is taking all manner of slings and arrows ever since it came to light that the agency went out and secretly obtained reporter and editor phone records from journalists at the Associated Press. This intrusion into two months' worth of private records of AP journalists was apparently carried out in pursuit of whoever leaked information to the AP's Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, after the pair wrote a May 2012 piece about the CIA's involvement in thwarting a terror attack.

AP head Gary Pruitt is not at all pleased about any of this. As the editors of The New York Times noted, Pruitt said that "two months' worth of records could provide a 'road map' to its whole news-gathering operation." Generally speaking, those who practice journalism -- like The Times' editors -- have been outraged on the AP's behalf. CNN's John King put it best: "When this happens, however it happens, it sends a chilling message from the government to people in our business and the AP, I think, is justifiably outraged."

The DoJ's actions are simply not the sort of thing that anyone who works in the journalism or media industry are likely to defend. Or so I thought, until I found out today that Media Matters For America has prepared a set of talking points for people who maybe want to see the whole matter from the point of view of the agency that improperly surveilled journalists in a free society underpinned by First Amendment protections.

Which is wack, plain and simple.

Naturally, it should be said that Media Matters has not done something so horrifying as to mount a specific, fervent defense of the government surveilling AP reporters. The problem, however, is that they also don't mount a specific, fervent defense of the press freedoms to which the Associated Press (or any news outlet) is entitled. Caught between the knowledge that what the DoJ did was way beyond shady and the desire to defend a Democratic White House, Media Matters awkwardly attempts to "split the baby," as they say. Frankly, they quarter the baby. There are just ... baby parts, everywhere.

It's gross.

Their talking points come with some elegant caveats. "While it's early in this story and we don't have all the facts," Media Matters writes, "this case raises important questions about the balance between a free press and effective national security."

Well, it's not too early in the story to know these facts: THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, WHILST ON A LEAK HUNT, SECRETLY OBTAINED TWO MONTHS OF PHONE RECORDS FROM JOURNALISTS AT THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

Those are facts that we know. We can also make a set of reasoned judgments about these facts, beginning with the fact that the press often depends on whistleblowing sources and information leaks to keep the public apprised of what their government is doing. Snooping around in phone records puts the chill on that activity. It makes people with information less likely to come forward. It makes reporters and editors less likely to take risks. It puts journalists back on the path of covering the news on the basis of access and favor-trading.

That's all stuff that we know. And we should also know that in resolving the conundrum between national security and a free press, there are a lot of steps that probably should be taken before we jump to, "I know, let's just have the DoJ start pulling the AP's phone records!"

Media Matters seems to think that the facts of the matter are somehow in flux, and the larger issue is hazy enough to accommodate an allowance of the DoJ's actions. They are wrong on both counts, and their talking points are a hot mess, as a result.

Let's begin with their "Key Issues To Raise," the first of which is: "If the press compromised active counter-terror operations for a story that only tipped off the terrorists, that sounds like it should be investigated."

I don't know, guys. I think that when you "raise a key issue," you should sound like you've made up your mind about it. If it's not possible to phrase this talking point without the "if" and the "sounds like," you should probably just sit this one out. But like I said, just because something "sounds like it should be investigated," it doesn't mean that the next step is snooping through two months of phone calls.

Also, I do not understand the whole "for a story that only tipped off the terrorists," part. Who is arguing that the Associated Press "only tipped off the terrorists?" Surely we can all agree that the Associated Press is a global news organization, and there is no chance that their stories are somehow "only tipping off terrorists." What they do is called "informing the public."

They go on: "It was not acceptable when the Bush administration exposed Valerie Plame working undercover to stop terrorists from attacking us. It is not acceptable when anonymous sources do it either."

Can you name the terrorists that Valerie Plame stopped? I don't doubt that she was a terrific protector of the homeland, guys, but you've suddenly gone from a lot of equivocating to saying something very definitive, without much in the way of supporting evidence. Also, are we equating the Associated Press with the Bush administration, here? Because that is not a good idea.

The next point: "Is this story about a government source blowing the whistle on government misbehavior, or about a source gratuitously exposing ongoing counter-terrorism operations?"

Like I said, this is a story about the DoJ cold grabbin' two months of journalists' phone records, on a witch hunt for a source, in a manifestly improper and unconstitutional reaction.

Then, Media Matters loses the thread entirely: "Did Republicans in Congress who are now exploiting the situation to score political points oppose the media shield law that likely would have protected the Associated Press in this situation?"

Huh, what now? A minute ago you guys were advocating for the government's right to investigate the press for matters of national security leaks. Now you are advocating for a law that would enshrine protections against such investigations. Whose side are you on? (Also, need I point out that it was the Republicans who wanted the DoJ to investigate these leaks?)

And in the next breath, we're back to implying that the DoJ's actions were justifiable: "How should the Justice Department strike the balance between respecting our free press and investigating damaging leaks that jeopardize counter-terrorism operations?"

By not secretly obtaining two months of phone records. That could be a good place to start.

The Media Matters brief trundles on through an entirely different section, vacillating wildly between taking the DoJ's side and being angry at Republicans for blocking "shield laws" and the like that would have protected journalists from the sort of witch hunt the DoJ undertook.

There are a lot of things now that you would think I would not have to tell Media Matters, but which their wackness makes necessary.

First and foremost, Media Matters, you exist because you'd like the press to adhere to your preferred set of norms, specifically norms that preclude an improper, rightward partisan tilt in news coverage. There's no denying that you guys make good cases. Here's the thing, though: If you'd like the press to listen to your urgings, you are probably not going to get that to happen while taking the position that it's OK for the government to snoop through the phone records of reporters and editors. To the perspective of those reporters and editors who were subject to the DoJ's probe, and to the journalists who take the AP's side in this matter, you guys are just dicks for putting out these talking points.

Secondly, anyone who does anything in journalism understands that there are basic protections that are necessary for a free press to function. Sources must be protected, whistleblowers must not be chilled, vital information has to flow to the American people. How much of your own work, Media Matters, depends on a courageous source, or a reporter willing to risk losing access to powerful officials -- or their own privacy! -- to get the truth out? I daresay that this matters very much to your business model. So, you should probably not put out talking points that imperil your own work.

Finally, the most obvious thing needs to be said: I'm pretty sure that if this probe of the Associated Press had been conducted by a Republican administration, you would not be doing all of this "Let's give the snoopers the benefit of the doubt."

I am pretty sure that your anger over the breach of these journalists' privacy would be epic and righteous and uncowed.

ThinkProgress! You guys need to check yourselves as well!

There are some deeds, I'm afraid, for which having the favored party identification is not an affirmative defense. It is not OK that the DoJ did this because the DoJ is being run by the guys who you perceive to be wearing the white hats. Snooping through the phone records of reporters doesn't become OK because Democrats are doing it, and it doesn't become evil by dint of the fact that Republicans are doing it. IT IS EITHER ALWAYS RIGHT, OR ALWAYS WRONG.

The thing is, Media Matters, you have painted yourselves into a corner here. Someday, in America, there is going to be a Republican in the White House. They will run the DoJ. They will contend with leaks of their own. They will face a choice as to whether to abridge the rights of the press to hunt that source down. They might even choose to do something very much like the DoJ did in this instance.

I think that what the DoJ did in this instance is wrong, and it's going to be wrong even if Republicans or antelopes or sentient toasters or Tralfamadorians are in the White House.

But after today, Media Matters, you are not going to be able to disapprove of these things. You are going to have to extend, to these hypothetical Republicans, the same generosity and the same benefits of the doubt. And you are not going to like that. Not one bit!

Sorry, guys, you are wack!

UPDATE: Media Matters is sort of semi-disowning this talking points memo because it was prepared by...some sort of renegade Media Matters faction, I guess? Here, let David Brock explain, as best he can:

Media Matters for America monitors, analyzes, and corrects conservative misinformation in the media and was not involved with the production of the document focusing on the DOJs investigation. That document was issued by “Message Matters,” a project of the Media Matters Action Network, which posts, through a different editorial process and to a different website, a wide range of potential messaging products for progressive talkers to win public debates with conservatives.

As a media watchdog organization, Media Matters for America recognizes that a free press is necessary for quality journalism and essential to our democracy. A healthy news media is what we fight for every day. Yesterday, 52 news organizations signed a letter to the Department of Justice expressing concerns that the DOJ’s broad subpoena of Associated Press reporters' phone records runs counter to First Amendment principles and injures the practice of journalism. We stand with those news organizations and share their concerns.

Right so, Media Matters mostly stands "with those news organizations and share their concerns," except for the people from their "Message Matters" program, who are sort of on the fence, because what's important in this instance is winning "public debates with conservatives." (Also, there's a "different editorial process," guys, which seems to mean "a slipshod one.")

David Brock chairs both Media Matters for America and the Media Matters Action Network, so this is a pretty neat trick.

Extant statements from Eric Cantor spokesman Doug Heye and John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel indicate that they, too "stand with those news organizations and share their concerns," so it's not clear what argument anyone is having here, that needs to be won.

What remains clear is that if this is an attempt at formalizing a cogent argument on the matter, this "Message Matters" team is not particularly good at their job.

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