By:
June 15, 2021

When you really stop and think about it, what was done was unconscionable.

The Justice Department of the United States of America went after the phone and email records of journalists from some of the nation’s most respected news outlets. Not only that, they did so in secret.

The journalists had done nothing wrong. They broke no laws. And yet in an effort to root out leaks within the government, as well as who knows what else, the DOJ targeted the records of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.

And, I repeat, this happened in the United States of America, where the very First Amendment of the Constitution includes the freedom of the press. It started under the Donald Trump administration but apparently continued under Joe Biden’s first couple months as president.

On Monday, CNN Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr wrote that the time was finally right “to speak out on the Trump administration’s months-long efforts to secretly gain access to tens of thousands of my 2017 work and personal emails and my work and personal phone records.”

As Starr pointed out, she was not the subject of an investigation, and there was no suggestion that she had done anything wrong. The same goes for the other reporters targeted. Starr said she had no idea what the Trump administration was looking for.

Biden said reporters’ records will no longer be seized in his administration, and new policies will be put in place. The New York Times’ Charlie Savage wrote, “In testimony last week, (Attorney General Merrick) Garland said the new policy will be ‘the most protective of journalists’ ability to do their jobs in history.’ But many details remain unresolved, including how broadly the new protections will apply and whether he will implement it via a method that is easy or difficult for a future administration to roll back.”

Or, as Starr wrote, “Unless new protections are codified, this could all happen again to any journalist.”

Starr added she is “genuinely horrified by what happened. … All of this is a sheer abuse of power in my view — first against CNN and myself, since our work is and should always be protected by the First Amendment. But more importantly and more significantly, it is an abuse against the free press in this country, whether you are a television network correspondent or a reporter at a small town newspaper uncovering wrongdoing.”

John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, announced to staff he will step down at the end of next week. Demers is a holdover from the Trump administration and was expected to step down eventually. “But,” The New York Times’ Katie Benner wrote, “Mr. Demers’s departure also comes as Democrats and First Amendment advocates have attacked the Justice Department following revelations that prosecutors supervised by Mr. Demers seized the records of reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN and of top House Democrats while investigating leaks of classified information.”

On Monday, Garland met with leaders of the three news organizations whose journalists had their records confiscated.

The meeting included New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and deputy general counsel David McCraw; Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan along with executive editor Sally Buzbee and general counsel Jay Kennedy; and CNN was represented by Washington bureau chief Sam Feist and general counsel David Vigilante.

Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, spoke on behalf of the news organizations, adding that the meeting was “off the record.” Brown added, “We are very encouraged by what we heard inside the meeting.”

Sulzberger put out a statement that said, “In today’s meeting, we sought a full accounting of what happened and requested that the Department of Justice codify that it will no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations. We were encouraged by Attorney General Garland’s statements but we will continue to push until our concerns are addressed.”

In his statement, Ryan said, “It was encouraging to hear the Attorney General‘s commitment to the first amendment rights of all Americans. While we welcome the new policy to refrain from using compulsory legal procedures to seize reporter records in leak investigations, we feel steps must be taken to ensure it is durable and binding on future administrations. It is also essential that there be a full and complete public accounting of all the actions taken against our news organizations, including the secret subpoenas and gag orders, and an explanation as to what has been done with the information that was seized.”

It’s a little curious that three news organizations fighting for press rights would agree to an off-the-record conversation. According to The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Brown said, “We wanted to have a conversation inside the building where all sides could fully and freely share views.”

In a statement, the Justice Department said, “In the coming weeks the Attorney General will develop and distribute to the field a memo detailing the current policy. The Attorney General committed to working with members of the news media to codify the memo setting out these new rules into regulation.”

Putin denies Russian interference in US election

Russian President Vladimir Putin being interviewed by NBC News. (Courtesy: NBC News)

During an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Keir Simmons, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed accusations that the Russian government or hackers were behind cyberattacks in the U.S.

Putin told Simmons, “We have been accused of all kinds of things. Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.”

In addition, Putin denied putting out a hit on political rival Alexei Navalny, but would not guarantee that Navalny would get out of prison alive.

“Look,” Putin said, “such decisions in this country are not made by the president.”

When asked whether it was a “coincidence” that several other political rivals had been assassinated in recent years, Putin said, “We don’t have this kind of habit — of assassinating anybody.”

In an article for NBCNews.com, Simmons, Corky Siemaszko and Yuliya Talmazan wrote, “Throughout the interview, Putin relied on the Kremlin’s time-tested strategy of deflecting criticism by pointing out America’s failures, suggesting that criticism from the West was hypocritical because every country, including Russia and the U.S., acts in its own self-interest.”

Also notable were Putin’s kind words for Donald Trump. Putin told Simmons, “Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual. Otherwise he would not have become U.S. president. He is a colorful individual.”

NBC News’ interview comes as Biden and Putin prepare to meet this week in Geneva.

I mentioned last week how all the major news anchors — ABC’s David Muir, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and NBC’s Lester Holt — will be anchoring tonight from Geneva ahead of the summit. In addition, Fox News Channel’s John Roberts also will be in Geneva, anchoring “America Reports” (1 to 3 p.m. Eastern) today and Wednesday.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, here are some notable works to get you ready:

Headline of the day

I actually found this to be a brilliant headline despite the “you don’t say” aspect to it. The headline in The Washington Post: “Coronavirus infections dropping where people are vaccinated, rising where they are not, Post analysis finds.”

The report — from Dan Keating, Naema Ahmed, Fenit Nirappil, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Lenny Bernstein — also says, “States with lower vaccination also have significantly higher hospitalization rates, The Post found. Poorly vaccinated communities have not been reporting catastrophic conditions. Instead, they are usually seeing new infections holding steady or increasing without overwhelming local hospitals.”

While that might be encouraging, the Post wrote, “But experts worry that unvaccinated people are falling into a false sense of security as more transmissible variants can rapidly spread in areas with a high concentration of unvaccinated people who have abandoned masking and social distancing.”

It’s a detailed report that requires your attention.

Amanpour reveals she has cancer

Christiane Amanpour. (Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international anchor and host of PBS’s “Amanpour & Company,” said on-air Monday that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She said she had major surgery and is now undergoing several months of chemotherapy for the “very best possible long-term prognosis, and I’m confident.”

Amanpour told viewers, “I’m telling you this in the interest of transparency but in truth really mostly as a shoutout to early diagnosis to urge women to educate themselves on this disease, to get all the regular screenings and scans that you can, to always listen to your bodies, and of course to ensure that your legitimate medical concerns are not dismissed or diminished.”

Amanpour, 63, has been with CNN since 1983 and is widely recognized as one of the top journalists in the world. Her career also includes moderating ABC News’ “This Week” and being a reporter for CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” Bianna Golodryga, CNN’s senior global affairs analyst, had been filling in for Amanpour on CNN for the past month.

In true professional and Amanpour fashion, she concluded her on-air statement by saying, “So, that’s my news. Now let’s get to the news.”

50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers

This week is the 50th anniversary of The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers — the U.S. Department of Defense’s history of the country’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 that revealed how the Johnson Administration had lied to Congress and the American people about its involvement in the Vietnam War.

The New York Times is commemorating one of the most important newspaper stories — and, maybe, the biggest journalistic scoop — of all time with an amazing package: “The Pentagon Papers at 50: A Special Report.”

It includes an absolutely gripping and stunningly-well designed feature: “‘We’re Going to Publish’ — The Oral History of the Pentagon Papers.”

The package is elite and fascinating to all audiences, not just journalists and those who follow the journalism business closely.

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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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