Many reporters have contentious relationships with sources and with the government, but James Risen is in a class of his own. The veteran New York Times national-security reporter has scored some notable scoops the authorities didn’t want him to—most notably about a failed CIA sabotage operation on Iran’s nuclear program. When Risen got the story the first time, the government convinced The Times to quash it for national-security reasons. (He eventually published it in a book).
The CIA thought it knew who leaked the info, and it subpoenaed Risen to reveal his source. Demanding this of a journalist is technically legal, but is highly unusual and often frowned-upon. Risen refused to divulge the source and said he’d go to jail instead, setting up a long showdown with the Justice Department. Ultimately, Risen won. Under pressure, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed, ambiguously, “As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen testified, refusing to name his source, and the Justice Department still managed to convict Jeffrey Sterling for leaking. Everyone else lived happily ever after.
Or not. Risen has launched a one-man crusade against Holder and the Obama administration. Risen escalated that this week with a series of angry tweets replying to a speech Holder gave the National Press Club, in which the reporter blasted the current White House as the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation and accused the attorney general of shredding the First Amendment.
Critics called it a rant; Risen said it was merely a fact-check. That divided response shows the dangers for reporters debating press freedom. It’s the one area that can turn otherwise impartial journalists into fierce advocates. While many in the media see that as an essential risk, it is no doubt a risk. It’s also unclear whether the public is on the press’ side, and how it might react to that advocacy.