Phone records probe is a big issue

Lost a bit amidst the scandals involving American response to the terrorism in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in American deaths and the IRS overreaching into groups that might oppose President Barack Obama and his agenda is the third leg of the stool: The grab by the Justice Department into the phone records at The Associated Press.

Good, many might say. The press is too intrusive, gets the stories wrong, is too close to its sources, is part of the problem, hides the truth and is not needed in a world where seemingly everyone has a cell phone and access to Twitter.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Much of what the press does is misunderstood because of a lack of knowledge of history, government and the role the press is supposed to play.

Indeed, the First Amendment prohibits intrusion on a free press as a government-protected right. There is a reason for that. The Founding Fathers saw to it that the press would stand in the breach between the people and a government that could, if left unchecked, run roughshod over them. The press was envisioned from the start as a player in the maintenance of the nation’s freedom, serving as a vital check against the powers of government. It has, to varying degrees of success, played that role well for 237 years. That role does not go away, though changed in the instantaneous world of smartphone communications.

The freedom preserved by an unfettered press runs from the Capitol to the city hall, from the FBI to the local police station, from the Department of Education to the local school board. It’s all the more important in an apathetic world where people don’t even bother to vote.

And that is what is at issue in the AP case. It already is tough in the world to try to provide perspective to the facts that fly at speed across the Internet and social networks, often by people who are uninformed or half-informed. And that atmosphere makes it tough for reporters to find people willing to share what they know to help build a story about what can be proven.

Add to that atmosphere a fear that government will intrude or pressure individuals who dare to tell what they know, or worse, that government will change the nation to allow anyone in a position of authority to trample on the right to freely discuss and reveal issues in the public and private sector, then the job of a free press to check unchecked power becomes all the more difficult.

The chill among news sources already is palpable, according to AP leaders, who say reporters are not getting the cooperation they used to from some sources.

And if that grows worse, if the overly broad reach by the Justice Department to obtain phone records not only in offices but also in the private homes of reporters and editors, as well as their private cell phones, is allowed to stand, fear will surround dealings with the press. The government will be able to consolidate power and use it in new and frightening ways.

No, the press isn’t perfect. But it does have a constitutionally protected role.