Burriss: FBI posing as journalists

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Here's an interesting conundrum about how the media themselves support notions of the public's right to know.

The inspector general of the FBI recently issued a report outlining how agents can pose as journalists in criminal investigations. Some media organizations are praising the report as spelling out restrictions on such activities. Other news organizations are decrying the report as blurring the line between the government and a free press.

The report came about because of a 2007 investigation where an FBI agent posed as a staff member for the Associated Press. The investigation was successful and a cyber-criminal caught.

So I immediately wondered if AP management was contacted before the FBI deception. Did they approve of the trick? And would the AP acknowledge the cooperation if asked?

Now, all the way back in 1977 Carl Bernstein documented cooperation between journalists and media organizations and the Central Intelligence Agencies. And this wasn't some vague report. Bernstein named names, much to the embarrassment of everyone concerned.

So two questions emerge: should government employees pass themselves off as journalists, and just how much cooperation should there be between journalists and the government?

But that leads to another question: in the interest of full disclosure, which most journalists seem to believe in, shouldn't journalists tell us when they are cooperating with the government? After all, how many times have journalists and commentators told us about conflict of interest? Or how even the appearance of conflict of interest can taint public perception and the entire democratic process?

So just to be clear: government agents pretending to be journalists subverts news gathering and open discussion of public policy. And we need to know when the government is using the press for its own ends, as well as when the media is doing the same thing.

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Larry Burriss
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