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Navarrette: Journalists aren't criminals

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney takes questions

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney takes questions from reporters during a press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. (May 15, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Journalists aren't just storytellers. Some people consider them instigators, agitators and troublemakers.
In nearly 25 years on the job, I've been called all those things -- as well as a whole lot of other names that we can't print in a family newspaper.

Yet, until the Obama Justice Department came along, I never thought of myself, or others in my profession, as a full-blown criminal "co-conspirator."

And I certainly never thought that any of my colleagues could be called that simply for doing what we're supposed to do -- gather information from often-reluctant sources and share it with the public.

A good journalist can also be a bad influence. We often encourage people to do things they're really not supposed to do.

Such as violate confidentiality agreements they've signed with employers. Or act as a whistleblower to report wrongdoing. Or, in a practice on which the Obama administration is cracking down, leak sensitive information that the government doesn't want the public to know.

There is a memorable scene in the film "The Insider," where Lowell Bergman, "60 Minutes" producer -- played by Al Pacino -- is arguing with a CBS lawyer who is worried that Bergman has encouraged whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with a tobacco company. That's what people in the news business do, Bergman tries to explain -- get people to reveal what they're not supposed to reveal.

Naturally, the process of gathering information can sometimes be problematic or embarrassing for those in high places.

Several years ago, I was on the phone with a lawyer at a local district attorney's office. I had been turning up the heat with a series of columns over alleged prosecutorial misconduct and the folks in the office were feeling it. "You don't understand how hard it is to work here lately," she said. "We can't go to the grocery store without being asked about what's in the paper!"

I am not sympathetic. That's what separates journalism from public relations. One tries to get at the truth, while the other only has to worry about casting their clients in the best light so no one bothers them at the grocery store.

Fox News correspondent James Rosen doesn't do public relations. He's a first-rate journalist. And, for doing his job, he was named by the Justice Department as a possible criminal co-conspirator for obtaining and broadcasting information the government considered too sensitive. The information allegedly came from Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a State Department adviser that the federal government is now prosecuting for allegedly leaking classified material.

The government searched Rosen's personal emails, and even rummaged through the phone records of his parents. It was recently disclosed that Attorney General Eric Holder himself approved the search of Rosen's emails.

So the Obama administration, and the chief law enforcement officer in the country, think that Rosen is a co-conspirator. And Mom and Pop Rosen are, what, co-co-conspirators?

Michael Clemente, Fox News' executive vice president of news, called the administration's crackdown on Rosen "downright chilling."

There is no other word for it. And coming on the heels of the disturbing revelation that the Justice Department searched the phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press, it is additional evidence that this administration has declared war on what has always been one of the foundations of American democracy -- a free press.

The war wounded might include Sharyl Attkisson, an Emmy Award-winning reporter for CBS who has been a thorn to the administration for quite some time. She broke the "Fast and Furious" scandal that involved federal agents allowing nearly 2,000 guns to enter Mexico in 2009 and 2010. Attkisson said recently that her computers, both at work and home, have been "compromised."

The administration insists that it had nothing to do with it. But Americans have a right to be skeptical.

The media aren't just covering this story, they are the story. Too many of my colleagues have bought, at face value, this far-fetched narrative that the administration is simply trying to plug leaks. But more and more it looks like what it is really trying to do is harass, pressure and intimidate some of its loudest and most effective critics in the Fourth Estate.

We can dance around that fact. But it's getting harder to deny it.