Media Groups Blast Justice for Seizing AP Records

After the Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had secretly acquired a large number of its reporters' phone records, several media associations, led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, hit back at the agency hard.

A number of journalism associations would like the public to know that freedom of the press is no laughing matter.

And after an incident involving the world’s largest news organization, a foiled terror plot, and the acquisition of phone records by the Department of Justice (DOJ), many groups in the journalism industry spoke out this week. More details:

The system failed here—either because your approval was not sought, or because it was given when it should not have been.

What happened?

On Monday, the Associated Press announced that DOJ, upset over a leak regarding a foiled terror plot on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, had acquired phone records of the wire service and its reporters from a two-month period.

AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt reacted strongly. “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” he wrote.

Attorney General Eric Holder defended his department’s actions on Tuesday, which he said follow the Obama administration’s general policy of investigating leaks to the media.

Media Groups React

On Tuesday, more than 50 organizations joined in signing a letter, released by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, condemning the agency’s actions in specific detail, noting that the Justice Department took an extremely broad approach to acquiring records from the wire service.

“Instead of being directed at relevant records on a limited topic for a closely circumscribed time period,” the group wrote, “the subpoena appears to have covered all records that could be relevant so that prosecutors could plunder two months of newsgathering materials to seek information that might interest them.”

The letter goes on to note that Justice officials failed to inform AP in advance and made no effort to negotiate conditions with the wire service for turning over records. The group takes Holder to task for failing to properly oversee his department, as any subpoenas for information require express approval by the attorney general, a decision Holder says he did not make.

“The system failed here—either because your approval was not sought, or because it was given when it should not have been,” the letter continues.

Industry groups signing the letter include the Online News Association, National Association of Broadcasters, Society of Professional Journalists, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, American Society of News Editors, Reporters Without Borders, and the Newspaper Association of America.

NAA President and CEO Caroline Little, in a separate statement, condemned the DOJ’s actions: “Today, we learned of the Justice Department’s unprecedented wholesale seizure of confidential telephone records from the Associated Press,” she said. “These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Americans demand a full accounting. We are reaching out to both the executive and congressional branches and will not rest until we have the answers, and that those who made this horrendous decision are known, and corrective actions are taken.”

(Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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