Attorney General Calls for Stricter Press Protections — the Press Keeps (Mostly) Quiet About It

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press questioned whether the new guidelines go far enough

Attorney General Eric Holder’s call Friday for Congress to enact press shield legislation and  his issuance of new guidelines to more strictly limit probes that examine reporter phone records and emails has so far drawn muted reaction from media companies.

Fox, one of two companies in the center of media furor over probes of reporters — the Justice Dept. approved a search of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s emails after he wrote about the North Korea nuclear program — declined all comment on the new guidelines.  

The Associated Press, whose reporters saw their phone records examined after reporting on a secret CIA Yemen investigation, said in a blog post statement that it was "gratified" that a report prepared by the Justice Dept. outlined changes. The Justice Dept. "took our concerns seriously," AP said.

Also read: Fox News 'Outraged' by Justice Department Spying on Reporter

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press also praised the new guidelines while questioning whether they go far enough.

"The proposal announced by the Attorney General today adopts several improvements to the existing guidelines, and would provide additional protections to working journalists," the group said in a statement. "We continue to believe that an impartial judge should be involved when there is a demand for a reporter's records, because so many important rights hinge on the ability to test the government's need for records before they are seized."

Other media companies offered no immediate reaction. Several newspapers are likely to respond in editorials over the weekend.

Also read: AP Slams Justice Department Over Seizure of Phone Records

Holder announced the new guidelines on Friday as part of a six-page report examining Justice Dept. policies on seizing reporters information that President Obama ordered in May after the probes drew a backlash from media companies, who argued that they put a chill on the First Amendment.

The report said the changes were designed "to further ensure the Department strikes the appropriate balance between two vital interests; protecting the American people by pursuing those who violate their oaths through unlawful disclosure of information and safeguarding the essential role of a free press in fostering government accountability and a free society."

The two biggest changes would limit instances in which a reporter's information can be seized and would also offer more opportunities for media companies to contest a subpoena for reporter's information.

The report said the Justice Dept. would notify media companies, “in all but the most exceptional cases.”

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the report buttresses the need for media shield legislation.

"The guidelines make a good deal of sense and combined with our bipartisan media shield bill, should provide the bank shot necessary to deal with the longstanding problem of how the government seeks answers from the media about leaks," he said.