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posted: 5/16/2013 5:00 AM

Why you should care about secret subpoena of AP

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To read much of my email or hear many of my phone calls, you would believe that The Associated Press is a socialist organization in league with President Obama to assure his political success, if not his eventual coronation.

I wonder what those writers and callers think now.

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One thing should be clear: The shock and outrage that many journalists -- not to mention politicians, bloggers and anyone else who appreciates free speech -- have expressed over the U.S. Justice Department's secret subpoena of AP notes and telephone records is born not of a sense of betrayal but of fear. News organizations, AP in particular, aren't angered that their "friend" in the White House turned on them. They're worried that he'll get away with it.

And if that happens -- if there are no consequences to this sweeping intrusion into the private affairs of a respected news agency -- not only could the Obama administration become emboldened about undermining and intimidating news coverage it doesn't like, but all future administrations could as well.

It is a fundamental premise of American-style democracy that sunshine is necessary for self rule. The public cannot make educated choices of its leaders nor hold them accountable for their actions if their activities are cloaked in darkness or shadow. For this reason, an entire body of law exists regarding such dangers as prior restraint of news coverage and such tools as anonymous sources.

The Justice Department's secret subpoena of two months of records for about 100 AP journalists strikes at both those points. Its mission to root out and presumably punish someone who passed along to the public information the government didn't want the public to have is a clear attempt to interfere with a relationship -- the anonymous source -- that is critical to some types of government reporting. If the government can find and punish whoever talked to AP, it can prosecute and thereby discourage others who might someday be inclined to make public information the government wants kept secret.

Moreover, if it can show a news organization that it is willing to examine a wide range of records well beyond the scope even of a specific investigation, it certainly can also discourage news reporting on sensitive topics -- whether critical of the government or simply providing information the government wants to keep to itself.

These are not matters that news media types alone should be worried about. The problem with things like the Justice Department's broad and secret subpoenas of press agencies isn't that they make our jobs more difficult. The problem is that they make your job more difficult -- that is, the job of selecting government officials and making sure they do their work as you want them to.

Regarding the AP subpoenas, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has quickly played the "national security" card. The breadth of this DOJ operation was justified, he says, because the leak it was investigating endangered lives. With full respect to the importance of letting government protect its citizens, that's what government almost always says. And of course who doesn't want to ensure people's safety? But the evidence that such leaks ever put individuals in danger is limited, and it's just as easy to demonstrate that these reports can save lives, too, in addition to their role in merely keeping government types honest.

So, the issue with the Department of Justice and The Associated Press goes much deeper than whatever conclusion it suggests about a news agency's relationship with a given politician. It's really all about the relationship of a people with its government. That's the issue everyone should be worried about, regardless of their opinions about the objectivity of AP.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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