The story that had everyone talking Tuesday night was the New York Times scoop that the former FBI director, James Comey, wrote a memo stating that President Donald Trump had asked him to stop an investigation into the administration's ex-national security advisor. Big questions about the propriety of such a request were raised throughout the story, all night on cable shows and everywhere one looked on social media.
Lost amid all of the reaction and analysis, though, was something tucked into the middle of the story that widened my eyes when I read it for the first time. It was a paragraph essentially setting the stage for the request that Trump made regarding the FBI investigation: "Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates."
When Trump has railed about the news media, calling us "fake" and the "the enemy," it's possible to view it as a lot of bluster from a man who knows how to rile up both his detractors and supporters.
When he talks in a private meeting with the head of the FBI about putting journalists behind bars, we must call this thinking out for the danger it represents.
The argument by government officials that news organizations should be legally barred from publishing classified information has been made before. One of the most famous examples was the case of the Pentagon Papers, classified information about the Vietnam War that the New York Times and Washington Post obtained. President Richard Nixon's administration attempted to keep it from the public by going to the courts, claiming such information would pose a security risk if shared with the public.
The courts were not moved, concluding with the highest one in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court. Here's a snippet of the 1971 ruling in favor of the newspapers: "The word 'security' is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged."
For a good example of what can happen if we allow the First Amendment to be diluted, President Trump needed to look no farther than his guest at the White House on Tuesday, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 155th out of 180 nations reviewed in its global free press index for 2017. Here's part of the note about that country: "The authorities have used their fight against 'terrorism' as grounds for an unprecedented purge. A state of emergency has allowed them to eliminate dozens of media outlets at the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation publications. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned without trial, turning Turkey into the world’s biggest prison for media personnel."
The good news is that the United States is ranked much better than Turkey in that index. The bad news is that we've been dropping down the list in recent years. It's well past the time for Americans to see a bipartisan commitment to reversing that trend.