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Joel Cohen Headshot

'Chilling' the Press: How Will It Turn Out?

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Sure, I get it: we need the press. They're the "surrogate" for the public -- the check and balance against government overreaching in the extreme. The Founding Fathers, whether they truly believed it or not when muckrakers came after them individually, carved it in stone for us nearly 250 years ago.

But, still, the press always whines. If some public figure -- or even non-public figure -- isn't willing to go open kimono every time a reporter is hot on an exclusive, they pontificate about their supposed "right" to know, even if the story at the end of the day won't pan out. And they see as obstructionists those who won't pony up with information. They may sit on your doorstep (sometimes with an ambush cameraman in tow). They may warn you about an approaching deadline time scenario, saying that "If you don't tell us your side, we'll just be left to go with what we have." Or they may tell you, when their paper somewhat mischaracterizes your conduct in print, that "I wrote it just like you said, but, sorry, my editor changed it."

Sometimes -- yes, sometimes -- when they cajole you for a story and preach to you about their absolute duty to the First Amendment, you sort of wonder whether all that concerns them is their self-interested duty to their own byline. Or if, somehow, you turn the tables on them and get some friendly reporter to editorialize about their unprofessional journalism or otherwise try to level the playing field, they complain vociferously that you've wronged them. Sort of like the old game of "Cowboys and Indians" where, at half time, you and your friends would switch sides.

But there's something different at stake with the ever-emerging "scandal" over the government seemingly going off the rails by obtaining the telephone records of reporters. Just imagine yourself writing a story using a source who has gone rogue. The source, say a CIA contract employee, as it now appears actually happened, gave you, as the reporter, highly classified information containing government secrets describing precisely how far overboard the U.S. government may have gone. You would be a fool to not recognize that the government will, in turn, venture to perform a forensic colonoscopy of you. Count on the call records of every call you've made or received at least in the last three years, being scrutinized by a CIA agent with a copy of the Patriot Act in hand. Just imagine that, and even put aside how far the government may go to find a way to prosecute the admitted leaker, Edward Snowden.

Just imagine if, as that reporter, you've been happily married for years, but nonetheless you had a one night stand two years ago with your high school sweetheart or with someone you picked up in a saloon while on a lonely business trip. Or you owe money to a bookie because you suffer with a gambling problem. Or, you get cell phone alerts whenever your AA meeting is cancelled. How willing would you be to throw caution to the wind and risk a CIA agent-on-a-mission looking too closely at your spare time activities -- all in the in the sacred name of his protecting America's borders?

Being an investigative reporter who reports on matters of national security is not, in the best of times, a job for the faint of heart. But now? Do we really want to have this added mental burden heaped on reporters that may make them too concerned that zealous government gumshoes will start labeling them as "co-conspirators" of the jihadists who threaten to take us down again?

Some reporters may, indeed, undermine our government's (principal) duty to protect us. And in an internet age when every Tom, Dick & Harry has the capacity to take his message viral from his studio apartment laptop, these sometimes less scrupulous, non-institutional "journalists" make the threat to U.S. security even greater. But that's another conversation altogether.

The press, today, is more than agitated when it suggests hypocrisy on the part of the President. His Administration seems willing to come down like a ton of bricks on a press corps bent on exposing excessive government surveillance. But, in contrast, as a candidate, he purportedly ventured to lead the most transparent government ever.

Sitting on the sidelines, it is hard to know how much danger a snooping press causes U.S. national security. Equally hard to tell how much the government's privacy invasions chill a determined press corps. It may be that the Obama Administration has indeed gone overboard in its records-gathering capacity. But before the oversight committees start assessing blame, we all need to remember that the tools that the Administration is now using were given to it on a silver platter by the Congress in the wake of 9/11 -- namely, the Patriot Act that few members actually read before they signed on with their kneejerk votes in late 2001. Indeed, some of the same members of Congress who quarrel with administrations that fail to detect potential terrorist acts, also quarrel with them when, as here, they use extravagant investigative methods.

We live in dangerous times. We want an administration to be vigilant in interdicting terrorist acts. At the same time, we want a press corps that vigilantly exposes government overreaching. How does the government ensure that both jobs get effectively accomplished, when sometimes these twin goals seem headed on an unavoidable collision course?

The President says he welcomes a national conversation over this conflict that, presumably, may lead to a teachable moment. But how will the president -- how will the press, the sleuths, the FISA Court, the Congress, the public -- deal with the unseasonable "chill" in the air? Call him leaker, whistleblower, criminal, patriot, or otherwise -- that Snowden felt the need to leave the United States perhaps forever, certainly gives evidence to the currently biting presence of the chill.