Risen on press freedom (and our secret history)

George Orwell

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

George Orwell

With that epigram in mind, let’s consider the recent experience of James Risen, the New York Times national-security reporter who is battling to stay out of jail for refusing to reveal his confidential source (or sources) in a case the government is bringing against someone else. [That would be former CIA officer Jeffrey A. Sterling, whose case I wrote about last summer in an earlier post.]
In court this week, Risen complied with a subpoena and testified in federal court. He testified that he would not reveal his sources. Well done.
Here’s why what he is doing is so important: Unless reporters find out secrets, they are not really doing their job. Without those stories, we would have next to no idea what our government is doing.
In Risen’s own words (according to the Times story):

Mr. Risen, in the speech last fall at Colby College, noted that many of the most controversial aspects of the government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — drones, waterboarding, secret prisons, prison abuses in Iraq and more — took place in secret.

“If you took away all the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the history of the last 13 years,” he said. He said that the government was less likely to prosecute leaks of classified information that made the government look good, such as the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

“Stay on the Interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems,” he said. “Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.”

Well put.

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