National Press Club

AP CEO calls for new Justice Department guidelines to protect journalists

June 19, 2013 | By Robert Webb | Rewebb@aol.com

Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt speaks at a National Press Club Luncheon, June 19, 2013.  Mr. Pruitt discussed the chilling effect government eavesdropping has on sources.

Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt speaks at a National Press Club Luncheon, June 19, 2013. Mr. Pruitt discussed the chilling effect government eavesdropping has on sources.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The Department of Justice's seizure of Associated Press phone records has made it tougher for reporters to do their jobs, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said Wednesday, June 19 at a National Press Club luncheon.

Pruitt called for new Justice Department guidelines that include protections for journalists' email and text messages, and a federal shield law "with teeth."

The Justice Department's seizure unsettled sources and chilled reporting, he said.

"Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us -- even on stories unrelated to national security," Pruitt said. "Others are reluctant to meet in person. In one instance, our journalists could not get a law enforcement official to confirm a detail that had been reported elsewhere."

AP is not the only media to suffer, he said.

"Journalists from other news organizations have personally told me that has intimidated both official and non-official sources speaking to them as well," Pruitt said.

The Justice Department's actions appeared to stem from a story AP broke on May 7 that revealed a plot by an Al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen foiled by the CIA. AP held the story for five days to allay national security concerns raised by the Obama Administration, Pruitt said.

"Don't Americans have the right and need to know that such an attack was being plotted and that their government was able to prevent it?" he asked.

Pruitt, a native of Virginia who previously lead the McClatchy Company, called DOJ's sweep of AP's phone records a dangerous assault on the First Amendment. The government seized records of incoming and outgoing calls from work and personal numbers of individual AP journalists, general AP numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and AP's main number in the House of Representatives press gallery.

"The unprecedented intrusion into AP's news gathering records by government officials was so broad, so overreaching and so secretive that it violated the protective zone that the First Amendment provides journalists in the United States," he said. "The DOJ leadership violated its own rules."

Among them, Justice failed to give AP advance notice of the subpoena, leaving AP no opportunity to challenge the order in court.

"The DOJ may well have been acting in good faith, but if so ...they overlooked the First Amendment implications of their actions," he said.

He recommended the government adopt new guidelines for seeking records from journalists and called for the adoption of a federal shield law for journalists.

"We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action," he said. "We appreciate that we will not be prosecuted for committing journalism. But isn't that already in the First Amendment?"