Did Obama Flip Flop on the War Against the Press?

gregory-mtp-flipOne of the hallmarks of the Tim Russert era of Meet the Press was the gotcha video: A politician would be confronted with some archival footage demonstrating that they had, once upon a time, taken a different position than the one they were taking today.

It’s part of what the show was known for; how effective or important these moments were is another matter.

On yesterday’s show (6/2/13), host David Gregory thought he found one:

GREGORY: I am focused, too, on the president and the idea of making no apologies and then appearing to make apologies about all of this.  Here was the president middle of last month when he came out– when the seizure of the AP phone records first surfaced.  This is what he said:

OBAMA (videotape):  Leaks related to national security can put people at risk.  They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk.

GREGORY:  And yet then within a week, he’s changing his tune.  This is what he said then.

OBAMA (videotape):  I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. 

That’s an easy one, right? In the first speech Obama was all about law and order; a week later he was talking about the importance of journalism in holding the government accountable.

Except that the two speeches were not so different.

In those first comments (5/16/13), the part Gregory quoted was followed shortly thereafter by this:

Now, the flip side of it is we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable, and helps our democracy function.  And the whole reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in that democracy and that process.

So NBC used part of his answer, but not the part  (“the flip side”) where he raises the balancing concerns about press freedom.

And that second speech, the one Gregory thought could signal some sort of White House apology? Well it also included language about the supposed threats posed by leaks of classified information (see bold)–right before the part Gregory quoted:

As commander-in-chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law.

 So the two comments are not so different. In both cases, Obama is arguing that he’s attempting to balance concerns for journalistic freedom with the government’s need to keep secrets. The Obama administration’s record on this is clear enough–as FAIR put it (5/15/13), the investigations into the Associated Press and Fox News have renewed longstanding concerns about the administration’s overzealous pursuit of whistleblowers, and send a message to government employees:

When government officials talk to journalists about matters of compelling public interest, the Justice Department  will go to extreme lengths to find out who they are and prosecute them, even if it this requires the kind of government surveillance of journalism that is incompatible with a free press.

So while Gregory is playing “gotcha” by selectively editing Obama’s speeches, the real story here is that the administration’s record of targeting investigative journalism is all too consistent.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.