Press subpoenas are wake-up call for PR

There is a fair amount of agreement in journalism circles today, from the executive offices of The New York Times to the beat reporter sifting through courthouse documents, that the very practice of investigative journalism is under attack.

There is a fair amount of agreement in journalism circles today, from the executive offices of The New York Times to the beat reporter sifting through courthouse documents, that the very practice of investigative journalism is under attack.

Ever since Judith Miller sat in jail for months in a noble (but unsuccessful) bid to martyr herself at the altar of the First Amendment, both keen and not-so-keen observers have been on notice that if leaks for a hot story hit too close to the mark, a reporter may eventually come to work and find a fresh subpoena waiting for him.

This may be a splendid development for journalists who have dreamed of becoming heroic defenders of the free press ever since they saw Robert Redford lurking around that parking garage in All the President's Men. That still doesn't change the fundamental fact that, generally speaking, government pursuit of secret sources is a negative thing for our society.

Age-old arguments abound: The press is the "fourth branch" of government, whistleblowers need protection, the public has a right to know, etc., etc.

Such arguments have obviously not swayed the government's new, reduced tolerance for leaks. Just last week, two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, were subpoenaed in connection with articles they had written revealing the steroid-related grand jury testimony of various baseball stars, and their subsequent book, Game of Shadows, which focused on Barry Bonds. The use of the courts to squeeze journalists has now spread from the national security beat, to the financial beat (the SEC subpoenaed reporters earlier this year), to the sports beat - a downward spiral, undoubtedly.

So the PR industry might ask itself: Should we be sweating? Consider the fact that, without a crystal ball to read the government's intentions, every confidential interaction with the media could potentially be subject to scrutiny. Every off-the-record phone conversation about a client, every dropped hint about a competitor's foibles, and every anonymous e-mail putting a reporter on the trail of misdeeds at a firm or company may now reasonably be something that a US Attorney would like to discuss.

It's time for PR pros to stand up alongside journalists and show that the argument about "facilitating the free flow of information" is something that communications pros take seriously. To its credit, the PRSA issued a statement last February, in the midst of the Judith Miller debacle, on this very topic.

"We believe that reporters and news organizations must be free to make their own judgments about the honest dissemination of information and sources of information," it read. "If reporters fear jail sentences every time they get confidential tips or deal with sources who request anonymity... our free society will suffer."

Michael Cherenson, who chairs the PRSA's advocacy committee, said that surveys of PRSA membership revealed widespread support for First Amendment issues. "At the end of the day, PR is a First Amendment profession," he said. "We're all part of the newsgathering process."

The statement was a solid first step, but it is unclear if anything more will follow from PRSA -as Cherenson acknowledges, press freedom is not considered a "pocketbook issue" by most PR pros. Without an ongoing and concerted campaign by both the PRSA and the Council of PR Firms, as well as a host of industry heavyweights inserting themselves into the public debate, the issue is not likely to resonate with the majority of working PR people until it has progressed much farther into dangerous territory.

The government's overzealous approach, distressing as it may be, presents a rare opportunity for the PR world to take a stand that is in the interests of the public, the media, and the PR world itself. A unified front of all stations in the chain of information would be a strong sign that Americans - whether flacks or hacks - still value the freedom of speech.

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