Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Leaks and Press Freedoms

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Government leaks and a free press are not always compatible.

Democracy is said to depend on freedom of the press and other news media, especially the freedom to publish information and opinions without approval or censure from government officials. Empirically, there is a strong correlation between press freedoms and the fairness of elections, absence of autocratic leaders and other hallmarks of democracy.

Full and complete freedoms of the press and other news media are not an automatic consequence of economic development, education and other factors thought to foster democracies. For example, a 2001 World Bank study of 97 countries found that governments commonly owned their nation’s television stations.

Even in Western Europe, countries otherwise known for their political freedoms, government television stations made up more than half of the television market.

In the United States, most newspapers, television stations and cable television channels are owned and operated by private or publicly owned companies, and the government has little to say about what is published in or broadcast over them, with the exception of obscene, indecent or profane programming transmitted by conventional broadcasting systems, which are subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission.

One suspects that Americans and news organizations would loudly object if the government offered cash subsidies to newspapers or television stations as a reward for printing or broadcasting favorable coverage of elected officials or levied special taxes on news organizations as a punishment for unfavorable coverage.

Such practices would not explicitly prohibit unfavorable coverage but would make it more difficult for outlets that displeased the government to survive in a competitive marketplace for readers and viewers.

But candidates and officials can and do reward specific news organizations with personal appearances and interviews that the news organizations and their owners find valuable — or withhold interviews from those they find hostile, as Barack Obama did with Fox News for much of his first presidential campaign.

The private sector does not have the moral high ground, and there are times that private media outlets are unfair to government officials. Nevertheless, the American approach has been to prohibit the government from levying cash penalties on or offering cash rewards to media outlets on the basis of the fairness of their coverage.

Sometimes, however, government officials possess information that would be of interest to the public, and thereby valuable for news organizations. In principle, officials could reward favorable coverage by distributing or “leaking” more information to sympathetic outlets than to unfriendly ones.

We don’t yet have a data set or systematic study of the transactional characteristics of leaks — such as which outlets receive the most leaks and whether those outlets are more favorable in their coverage to the agencies doing the leaking. But government leaks can potentially be a noncash currency that can be traded between the government and news organizations.

Democracy is not jeopardized by a few leaks, and news media deal in a whole array of sports, business and other information to which government officials have no special access. But punishing government leakers is not inconsistent with democratic values. By preventing leaks from being used by the government as a currency for rewarding or penalizing media outlets, it could help keep the press truly independent.

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