NEW YORK –- The White House press corps is up in arms over the Obama administration’s aggressive tactics in investigating leaks, from secretly seizing journalists’ phone records to likening basic reporting to criminal conspiracy in order to obtain a journalist’s personal email account.
NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd said Wednesday on “Morning Joe” that the Obama administration wants to “criminalize journalism.” Todd suggested the Justice Department’s crackdown is “an attempt to basically scare anybody from ever leaking anything ever again.”
White House reporters have peppered Press Secretary Jay Carney with questions since last week's revelations about DOJ's broad subpoena used against Associated Press reporters and editors and this week’s concerning Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen.
Reporters are bound to ask Carney more questions –- many which he'll deflect given ongoing investigations –- and they've already made a statement through the White House Correspondents Association. But it's unclear whether they will take further steps in response to what many see as an unprecedented threat to press freedom under the First Amendment. Several veteran reporters told The Huffington Post that it’s unlikely the press corps would band together in any collective action, such as walking out of the briefing room, to protest the administration's treatment of the press.
Mark Knoller, a CBS News radio correspondent and an unofficial record-keeper for the White House press corps, said he could not “recall any kind of collective action like walking out of a briefing."
“It would be unprofessional,” Knoller said. “We’re there to cover the president, his policies and statements, not stage a protest. We endure delays in the briefing and obfuscation from the lectern, but we’re paid to be there.”
“White House briefings are not advocacy sessions,” said Ann Compton, an ABC News White House correspondent. “We are there as reporters, to ask about presidential actions and policies not advocate, even for press freedom. Occasionally reporters will refuse to take information on background or off the record, but I personally would never walk out on a briefing.”
During President Barack Obama's first term, White House reporters expressed frustration with the use of background briefings, whereby government officials can only be quoted "on background" and not by name. But collective action proved difficult given that any reporter not taking part in a background briefing runs the risk of losing out on information to a competitor.
It's even less likely White House reporters would walk out of a daily briefing, given that such a high-profile action could give off the impression that journalists -- who already don't rank too highly in some public opinion polls -- are more concerned with their own self-interest than with holding the government accountable. In addition, by remaining in the briefing room, reporters can continue to challenge the administration's tactics in rooting out leaks.
Peter Baker, a New York Times White House correspondent, has recently cited Carney's past job as a Time magazine reporter when asking him questions about press freedom.
“You just talked about the need to protect secrets and classified information and that's a crime,” Baker said Tuesday. “I am curious, though, when you were a reporter, did any source ever disclose or discuss classified information with you when you were on this side of the podium?”
While not addressing any specific case, Carney said that Obama “doesn't believe that a reporter should be prosecuted for doing his or her job.” As for his personal experience, Carney said, “it’s not about me.”
Baker told HuffPost that “this is an issue that concerns all of us on the beat, and it's our job to ask probing and challenging questions in the briefing room.”
“But in terms of taking formal positions or taking action of some sort,” he continued, “that's typically handled by the big bosses who speak for our organizations.”
"With the Pentagon Papers, for instance, it was the very top leadership of the New York Times and Washington Post that took the lead, appropriately so,” Baker added. “That makes it less about an individual reporter and more about the larger questions of free speech in a free society."
Similarly, Compton said that “strongest voices in journalism for protecting press freedoms remain the collective Washington bureau chiefs" making the case to White House senior staff and "independent reporters’ organizations which do lobby for such issues as shield laws.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who focuses on the relationship between the government and the press, said that news organizations, being competitors, typically “avoid getting together” in joint protest.
"During the Nixon years there was an effort to stop background briefings by getting organizations to refuse to attend them,” Kumar recalled. “It didn't work."
“In this instance it is difficult to imagine what collective action would involve,” Kumar added. “On the other hand, these actions represent a real threat to reporting. Having a reporter classified as a co-conspirator for doing his job is a threat to the profession we have not seen in our memory."