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Networks Yawn at Claim of 'Significant Decline' in Press Freedom in U.S. Under Obama

ABC, CBS, and NBC's morning and evening newscasts have so far punted on reporting the strong critique of the Obama administration's "disturbing retreat from democratic practices" with regard to the freedom of the press, according to Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. fell 13 places in the international group's annual "World Press Freedom Index" for the federal government's "increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks."

The organization spotlighted the controversial leaks from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as examples, but also included the Department of Justice's seizure of the Associated Press' phone records as a "reminder of the urgent need for a 'shield law' to protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources at the federal level." Fox News' Shannon Bream devoted a brief to the Reporters Without Borders report on Wednesday's Special Report: [MP3 audio available here; video below]

SHANNON BREAM: A group monitoring freedom of the press worldwide has issued a strong rebuke to the U.S. The World Press Freedom Index ranks the U.S. 46th this year, down from – 13 spots down from last year. Reporters Without Borders says the U.S. had – quote, 'one of the most significant declines in press freedom.' It cites the government's pursuit of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and the A.P. phone-tapping scandal. Forty-sixth place puts the U.S. between Romania and Haiti on the press freedom index.

The MRC's Geoffrey Dickens documented the Big Three networks' "reluctance to attach Barack Obama's name" to the Associated Press controversy when it emerged in May 2013: "In seven total stories aired on their evening and morning shows, since the story broke..Obama's name was used only six times. Reporters were much more likely to use the generic term 'government.'"

Besides the Manning, Snowden, and A.P. citations, the group underlined two other cases involving the criminal prosecution of American journalists:

...The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.

US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice's seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a "shield law" to protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.

Oddly, Reporters Without Borders didn't include the Justice Department's targeting of Fox News' James Rosen as a "criminal co-conspirator" in a separate leak investigation. CBS's Jan Crawford labeled the investigation of Rosen "unprecedented" during a May 2013 report on CBS This Morning and underlined the "bipartisan outrage over what some are calling 'Obama's war on journalism.'"

The organization singled out President Obama by name, though it blamed former President George W. Bush for supposedly starting the decline in press freedom:

In the United States, 9/11 spawned a major conflict between the imperatives of national security and the principles of the constitution's First Amendment. This amendment enshrines every person's right to inform and be informed. But the heritage of the 1776 (sic) constitution was shaken to its foundations during George W. Bush's two terms as president by the way journalists were harassed and even imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources or surrender their files to federal judicial officials.

There has been little improvement in practice under Barack Obama. Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them. No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush's two terms.

— Matthew Balan is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Matthew Balan on Twitter.