Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Who defends the watchdogs?

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Watchdog accountability of those in power takes many forms. So do the efforts to stop it.

One is the recent cellphone videos taken by citizens who witnessed what they describe as a violent beating by Kern County deputies of a man as he lay motionless on the ground, who then died.

One witness called 911 to threaten to give the video to the media. Before that could happen, deputies confiscated two cellphones. Video disappeared from one phone, and after much media coverage Sheriff Donny Youngblood announced he had asked the FBI to investigate.

A reader identified only as "thetruth" commenting online at the Bakersfield Californian early last week said, "We really need help here from the Department of Justice."

On the other side of the country, though, the DOJ was proving to be no friend of constitutional protections, accountability or government transparency.

Monday, the Associated Press reported the DOJ had secretly obtained two months of telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, potentially affecting 100 news employees. The records were for April and May 2012.

Outrage started with AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt, who rightly demanded the records be returned and all copies destroyed.

"These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt said.

The journalism group Reporters Without Borders called the move an "extremely grave violation of freedom of information." Journalists across the country condemned the move, as did politicians of all stripes on Capitol Hill.

Confidential sources indeed were the focus. Attorney General Eric Holder said the decision to seize the records was made as part of an investigation into AP's sources for a May 7, 2012, story revealing a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida affiliate plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airplane around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The story was big news, but it also held the White House and Department of Homeland Security accountable for assuring the public there were no credible threats to U.S. safety around the anniversary, despite their knowledge of that operation.

The AP delayed publishing the story at the request of the White House and the CIA, because of security concerns, yet still found itself the subject of the records seizure.

So what exactly was the concern? Holder cited public safety as the reason, with no additional details.

News of the seizure of records came as the nation's attention focused on another scandal: The IRS had targeted for special review conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Commentators were quick to link the two actions as attacks on free speech, virtually chortling that the media would be forced to work with conservatives to fight the government.

Such a characterization misses a key distinction. If the IRS threatens or intimidates any one of us to limit free speech, the media can report it, dog it and shine the brightest light on it until the IRS behaves. That happened when, by Wednesday and after intense media coverage, the acting commissioner of the IRS was fired and investigations were launched.

If the media instead is the group that is intimidated or shut down, who, then, pushes back? Who calls national or worldwide attention to the intimidation?

Make no mistake – this is an effort to control the message and the media, an effort to exert power in an unacceptable way in this country. We routinely protect the identity of some sources who risk careers and sometimes more to ensure necessary public knowledge when powerful people instead push for secrecy. A broad grab of documents to identify confidential sources threatens not just the First Amendment rights of a free press, but the very ability to report and publish investigative journalism.

Last month President Barack Obama attended the black tie dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association, an annual fundraiser for journalism scholarships. It's tradition that the president and other politicians attend, along with celebrities and journalists. The president was funny, the food was good and, for one night, it all was cozy.

More often there's a necessary tension between government leaders and the media. We hold officials accountable for decisions and actions, we remind them they report to all of us, and that they serve at the pleasure of the public.

The notion of the public as boss is often forgotten. Just before Bee reporters arrived in Las Vegas to find sources for our ongoing investigation into patient dumping by Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital, hospital officials – public employees – put out a memo to all employees reminding them they are not allowed under hospital policy to talk to the media.

It's almost routine for our reporters to work around efforts to shut down information, whether from potential sources or from access to documents.

It's not routine for deputies to confiscate cellphones to prevent damaging videos from reaching the media. And it's another thing entirely for reporters to need to find a way to communicate with sources without leaving a trail, to ensure government cannot identify a source, to encrypt every interview we conduct. Do we really need to become that paranoid?

If we do, our democracy is threatened.

Reach Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar at (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.