Criticisms abound on how the media interpret and use freedom of the press and the First Amendment. In his 2006 commentary Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? Gabriel Schoenfeld argues that the New York Times December 2005 article Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts violated the Espionage Act and the U.S. Criminal Code by disclosing information on the secret NSA Program. The New York Times refers to the NSA program as “an egregious abuse of power”. The New York Times exposé on government spying on private communications raises questions on the constitutionality of NSA’s activity. However, The New York Times is also criticized for inappropriate disclosure of information.
Do the media have press freedom to expose secret government activity on national security matters?
Relevance to Media Culture and Press Freedom
The issue surrounding the New York Times article relates to how the media operate and control the information people receive. The case against the New York Times is interesting, but what really matters is how it connects with U.S. news media history, and contemporary news media culture. The issue gives insight on government-media relations.
The media influence people’s perceptions of government. As such, the government filters information released to the media. Timing is also important. However, American media culture generally advocates press freedom. Press freedom is widely accepted and recognized. Thus, the debate is on how much press freedom is acceptable. For instance, in cases of national security, is it appropriate to disclose confidential government activity?
Schoenfeld’s Commentary, Press Freedom and Media Culture
Schoenfeld’s commentary targets news media’s incessant advocacy for freedom of the press. He argues that the interpretation of press freedom is off-track and violates the law. The media industry has gone a long way from repression in the pre-modern and modern world to the rights and privileges that it now enjoys. But has the news media really gone too far? Schoenfeld points out that news media professionals have rights pertaining to their professional freedom, but these rights have limits set by the constitution. Schoenfeld argues that penalties must apply to the New York Times for disclosing secret government intelligence.
Schoenfeld points to the current media culture of fearless publishing and broadcasting. The fearless character is due to the media’s disregard for negative effects on the common good. This fearless media culture calls on the redefinition of laws on media activity. These laws must be strengthened without hurting the media industry.
Schoenfeld’s commentary is significant in understanding the need to limit press freedom. It emphasizes what history has repeatedly shown: We have to guard what goes out from the news media to protect ourselves. Seriously taking what the New York Times did regarding the NSA program, the country is now in a disadvantage. Schoenfeld emphasizes that homeland security is at stake. Americans must know what the government does, without compromising national security.
- Cornell University Law School (2015). U.S. Code: Title 18 – Crimes and Criminal Procedure.
- Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2013). Media Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences. Sage Publications, Inc.
- Elsea, J. (2013). Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information. Congressional Research Service.
- Risen, J., & Lichtblau, E. (2006, Dec. 16). Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts. The New York Times.
- Schoenfeld, G. (2006, March). Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? Commentary.
- U.S. Department of State (2015). Civil Liberties in Wartime.
- U.S. Department of State (2015). Press Freedom.