By:
July 20, 2021

It was an invasion of privacy of almost unfathomable and beyond troubling proportions.

The Trump administration, while Donald Trump was still in the White House, wanted to know where leaks were coming from. So instead of digging into their own offices, they went in a different direction. They went after the news organizations that were breaking big stories.

Eventually, it was discovered that the Justice Department under Trump had seized the records of journalists from The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Even more stunning, it was learned that gag orders were placed on legal representatives from CNN and The New York Times, preventing them from even discussing or acknowledging that the DOJ was trying to get information.

The news outlets, as they had every right, were outraged by this practice, which did not end when Joe Biden became president. When the story came to light, Biden vowed to end the practice and representatives from the Times, Post and CNN met with Attorney General Merrick Garland in early June.

On Monday, there was good news.

Garland announced new policies that severely limit how and when prosecutors can secretly obtain the phone records and emails and other private documents of journalists.

In his official memo, which you can read here, Garland said the DOJ “will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of newsgathering activities.”

Garland’s memo did say, “As with the current regulations, this prohibition on compulsory process does not apply to obtaining information from or records of a member of the news media who is subject or target of an investigation when that status is not based on or within the scope of news gathering activities.”

In other words, records can be obtained if a journalist is suspected of, say, being a terrorist or working with a foreign government or agent. There are also a couple of other reasonable exceptions, such as kidnappings and crimes involving children.

Otherwise, the DOJ cannot just do as it pleases. Garland said, “… a free and independent press is vital to the functioning of our democracy.”

The news organizations originally targeted by Trump’s fishing expedition to find leaks praised Garland’s decision, according to Oliver Darcy’s CNN story.

Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said, “The attorney general has taken an important step toward ensuring the abuses of the past do not reoccur and that freedom of the press is protected.”

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said, “The new policy, which largely bars federal prosecutors from subpoenaing news media records or testimony, represents a significant step forward in the protection of press freedom. But there is still more to be done and we urge the Biden administration to work with Congress to pass a federal shield law to make these improvements permanent.”

A CNN spokesperson said, “This is a significant step forward for the protection of all journalists.”

Monday’s developments also were praised by journalist advocacy groups.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement, “These rules are an important step forward, but it’s crucial that they be codified in law. This will help ensure that journalists can do the work we need them to do — shine a light on government conduct, inform public debate, and hold the powerful accountable — no matter which party is in control of the executive branch. For now, exactly how much protection the rules will provide will depend on how the department defines and interprets some key terms. But the Justice Department should quickly issue a formal regulation defining these terms more fully, and Congress should codify these protections in law and ensure they are applied to the entire spectrum of the government’s surveillance tools.”

Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement: “The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.”

CNN’s streaming plans

CNN’s big move into streaming started to come to light last week when Kasie Hunt announced she was leaving MSNBC and NBC News. Almost immediately, we learned she was headed to CNN as a key figure in CNN’s streaming plans.

On Monday, those plans became more clear.

CNN expects to hire hundreds of staffers and will launch CNN+ early in 2022. Andrew Morse, chief digital officer who will oversee CNN+, told CNN’s Brian Stelter, “This is the most important launch for CNN since Ted Turner launched the network in June of 1980.”

The streaming service is expected to provide up to 12 hours of live programming a day, including original series and deeper dives on stories, as opposed to just the breaking news headlines. The on-air staff is expected to include current CNN personalities and new CNN faces — such as Hunt.

Still no word on what it will cost consumers.

This is the natural next move for CNN and, considering other networks (including cable news) have already entered the streaming game, it’s surprising CNN isn’t already playing in that space. And it’s trying to keep pace with audiences who are cutting cable from their viewing diets. But, as Stelter writes, “In the industry-wide race for subscribers, one of the billion-dollar questions has been: How many people might be willing to pay for news coverage?”

It’s a good question, especially considering how much traditional TV viewers are already paying for things such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, ESPN+ and so forth.

Biden walks back Facebook comment

President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden has backed off his comments from last week that Facebook was “killing people” because of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. When asked about the comment again on Monday, Biden said, “Facebook isn’t killing people — these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information.”

Biden apparently was referencing a report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate that said a majority of anti-vaccine misinformation was passed along by just a dozen people.

Biden said, “My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That’s what I meant.”

Dumb statement of the day

It’s not the government’s job to protect its citizens.

Can you believe someone actually thinks that? Someone on television? On a network that claims to be a news network?

Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked at what comes out of the mouths of those on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”

On Monday, one of the co-hosts, Steve Doocy (who actually has been quite responsible when it comes to the topic of vaccines and COVID-19) was in a conversation with fellow co-host Brian Kilmeade. Doocy said that 99% of those dying now from COVID-19 were unvaccinated.

“That’s their choice,” Kilmeade said.

When Doocy said the government and the Biden administration said mask mandates are to protect those unvaccinated, Kilmeade snapped, “That’s not their job. It’s not their job to protect anybody.”

Seriously, you can’t make up this stuff.

As I said, Doocy has been pretty responsible on the topic of COVID-19 and vaccinations, but does that erase someone going on TV and saying it’s not the job of the government to protect its citizens?

Space man

Jeff Bezos, second from the right, and the crew of Blue Origin New Shepard Rocket, on Monday’s “CBS This Morning.” (Courtesy: CBS News)

Today, another billionaire goes into space. Jeff Bezos brushes up into the final frontier in Blue Origin’s first human flight. All the networks will be covering the flight, starting in the 8 a.m. Eastern hour. Bezos also made the TV rounds Monday — appearing on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC.

Bezos goes up just days after another rich guy, Richard Branson, went into space. Which has led many folks to ask, “Isn’t this just an ego thing among wealthy people?” Actually, CNN’s Rachel Crane asked Bezos, “There have been a chorus of critics saying that these flights to space are just joyrides for the wealthy and that you should be spending your time and your money and energy trying to solve problems here on Earth. So what do you say to those critics?”

Surprisingly, Bezos said, “Well, I say they’re largely right.” But then he added, “We have to do both. We have lots of problems here and now on Earth and we need to work on those, and we always need to look to the future. We’ve always done that as a species, as a civilization. We have to do both.”

Meanwhile, Bezos told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, “People keep asking me if I am nervous. I am not really nervous. I am excited. I am curious. I want to know what we are going to learn. … We’ve been training, this vehicle is ready, this crew is ready, this team is amazing. We just feel really good about it.”

Manning up

ESPN has reached a deal with former Super Bowl-winning NFL quarterbacks and brothers Peyton and Eli Manning to announce “Monday Night Football” games. But hold on. It’s not what you think. The main ESPN “MNF” crew of Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick will continue to call the games on the main ESPN channel. The Manning brothers will be part of an alternate broadcast on ESPN2 and, potentially, ESPN+ at some point.

The Manning broadcast will be produced by ESPN along with Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions. The brothers will call games starting this season and go through the 2023 season. They will call 30 games in all.

“Offering multiple Monday Night Football viewing options for the next three seasons continues our innovation efforts and provides additional value for our fans,” Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and Sports Content, said in a statement. “Peyton and Eli will bring a different approach, delving into conversation about broader, big-picture topics while also honing in on the game, much like fans do when watching with their family and friends.”

This is a good get by ESPN. The personable and popular Peyton Manning has been a target for networks ever since he retired from football in 2015. While the Mannings won’t be calling games quite like viewers are used to (the Mannings are not expected to be on location for games), it is an interesting concept and surely will attract an audience. It also could include celebrity guests.

The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reports, “Amazon/NBC, the new partnership to broadcast ‘Thursday Night Football’ beginning in 2022-23, have Peyton high on its list to potentially join Al Michaels in the booth, according to sources.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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