E.J. Dionne’s big chill

For this week’s critique of E.J. Dionne’s Friday column, I enlist Slate’s Jack Shafer. Dionne took time out from direct Bush-bashing to argue that “a quiet campaign [is] being waged against [our] right to know things.” As evidence of this campaign, Dionne cited one instance in which a journalist was jailed for refusing to disclose a source, one instance where the government has threatened to jail two such journalists, one case where the government briefly clashed with a reporter in Colorado, and one rumor that the government is planning to investigate leaks to a Washington Post reporter.
Shafer, who describes himself as a “First Amendment extremist,” makes a persuasive case that Dionne is being an “alarmist, thrust[ing] his finger into the air to discover ‘chilling effects’ in the everyday conflicts between the state and press.” Shafer does this by offering what is so often missing from Dionne’s work — historical perspective. The sorts of clashes that have Dionne in such a state of panic have been occurring for more than 150 years. When they come to a head, it’s usually because both sides — the government and the journalist –are asserting weighty interests.
Occasionally the clashes are resolved by having the journalist serve a brief jail sentence. Through that act of civil disobedience, the journalist vindicates his or her asserted right not to cooperate in the criminal investigation, usually to great applause. I’ve never seen any evidence that this periodic drill chills journalists.

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