Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be on the defensive with his boss, but he won’t get much sympathy from newspapers.
On Monday, the News Media Alliance, the publishing trade group representing newspapers, expressed alarm at recent statements by Sessions. He hinted the Justice Department may begin issuing more subpoenas to news organizations in its quest to uncover the identities of leakers inside the government.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Sessions revealed that the Justice Department is “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” adding he had a “message for the intelligence community: The Department of Justice is open for business.”
In short, the Attorney General threatened to use subpoenas to force news orgs to divulge anonymous sources from within the constellation of U.S. intelligence agencies — already in disfavor with Trump for suggesting that Russia meddled in the 2016 election on his behalf.
During the same press conference, Sessions noted that the Justice Department has tripled the number of open leak investigations since January, indicating more new inquiries are on the way.
He also warned: “It's vital for the intelligence community to know that the Department of Justice is committed to investigating and prosecuting these referrals. When few investigations take place, criminal leaks may occur more often and a culture of leaking can take hold.”
On Monday, the NMA fired back, criticizing Sessions’ statement as a threat to freedom of the press. The NMA argued: “The free flow of information to reporters is crucial in order to bring matters of great public importance to light. Threatening the use of subpoenas that could compel reporters … to reveal the identity of a confidential source, will restrict the flow of information to reporters and ultimately to the public on matters of public interest, such as waste, fraud and abuse within the government and in the private sector.”
NMA president and CEO David Chavern stated: “In order for our government to function properly, there needs to be accountability. The press provides a vital role in helping the public to hold the government accountable. The Attorney General’s statements are an attempt to stifle communications between government officials and journalists which will ultimately keep the public in the dark.”
While conceding that journalists may be subpoenaed as a “last resort” in leak investigations, the NMA urged Sessions to retain the Justice Department’s current guidelines on media subpoenas, formulated under the Obama administration by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015.
These guidelines, the product of extended negotiations between the Justice Department and lawyers representing news orgs, err on the side of discretion. They were widely seen as a course correction ,following overzealous FBI investigations, including wiretaps targeting journalists working for the AP and Fox News in 2013.
On the campaign trail, President Trump also vowed to “loosen up” libel laws, seeming to foreshadow legal battles with the news media in this realm as well.
In June, former Alaska governor and Trump ally Sarah Palin filed a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times over an editorial published following the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise. In it, the newspaper speculated that some of Palin’s campaign literature led to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, based on an incorrect description of the literature.
The newspaper later filed a correction regarding this fact, but Palin’s lawyers stated the correction “did not approach the degree of the retraction and apology necessary and warranted by The Times’ false assertion that Mrs. Palin incited murder.”