The appointment of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions to U.S. Attorney General will make it difficult for journalists covering the Donald Trump presidency to use confidential sources. Sessions will take full advantage of the absence of a federal shield law to wield a heavy hand with the media when it attempts to report from inside the administration.
How do we know this? His history of obstructing a Free Flow of Information bill for the past decade and his disdain for the American press.
For the better part of two weeks the American media has been wallowing in angst over the impending Donald Trump presidency, uncertain what coverage of the Oval Office will look like the next four years.
There was speculation this week that President Trump will do away with the press pool that covers the office, sparking 14 news organizations to object to that plan for the sake of government transparency.
This, of course, comes on the heels of a very acrimonious relationship with the media that began on Day One of the Make America Great Again campaign. Trump has taken every opportunity to vilify the press, blaming them for his negative coverage when it went so far to point out his inaccuracies and the inconsistencies of his viewpoints.
Throughout the campaign he whipped up his base’s hatred for many groups, including the press. It didn’t happen without concerns from journalists. Reporters and photographers were physically threatened at worst and subjected to the sad, old refrains of “bias” at the least whenever Trump was challenged.
So, it stands to reason that there would be some serious hand-wringing once Trump takes office. Then came Friday’s announcement.
If you want to get a full measure of what the press may be in for, look no further than the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R – Alabama) as the new U.S. Attorney General. Sessions is absolutely no friend of the press. In fact, the GOP senator made a habit of trying to stifle the press for years from his vaulted seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
I was president of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2009-10 and it was the fourth straight year SPJ and a coalition of journalism groups were working to enact a federal shield law. The protective law, under the title Free Flow of Information, would grant journalists reporting on the federal government many of the same protections afforded reporters covering state government, which is to say, they could not be forced to reveal condidential sources unless there was compelling evidence to do so by a court.
Sessions and fellow GOP senators led an opposition to the shield law that lasted for years, and in particular, in 2009, he took it to extremes by openly and repeatedly mischaracterizing the bill’s language and intentions.
Sessions primary concern was national security. Understandable. But, no version of Free Flow of Information Bill was without exemptions for that. Journalists don’t want to aid and harbor enemies of the state with their reporting, so every version of the bill that came to the Senate Judiciary Committee in those years, made an exemption.
Still Sessions used his bully pulpit to try to convince his constituents that allowing source protection meant journalists would hide rapists, terrorists, child molesters from public scrutiny. It was a brazen scare tactic that resonated only with his fellow Republicans.
In another argument against the shield law, Sessions cited a grossly inaccurate statistic – that under the George W. Bush administration, only one reporter had been subjected to a federal subpoena for his sources. The accurate figure was 175. In fact, the increase in subpoenas of reporters was the very reason there was pressing need to enact a shield law. SPJ and others were working hard to get the protection from undue interference by the judiciary which impacted First Amendment rights to report and inform the American public.
As attorney general, Sessions will unleash a torrid assault on the press from his new office. If you think President Trump wants to suppress the American press in its coverage of the federal government, then you have to believe that he has his greatest foot soldier in Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
It’s not unreasonable to expect that the number of subpoenas for reporters’ notes and material will increase dramatically. If you want to keep a press at bay, keep a legal hammer over its head in the form of lengthy, costly legal battles. Sessions will be the one to orchestrate that. I have little doubt that he will use the powers of his office to exert a heavy hand over the press.
With newsrooms shrinking and their resources stretched thin even large and powerful voices in the press will find it hard to constantly defend themselves in court proceedings when federal court officials come calling with subpoenas, demanding to know at every turn who the confidential source is in a story.
There will be no better, legal way to muzzle the press during a Trump administration than operating a mission of suppression from the U.S. Attorney General’s office.
And, Sessions is up to the task.