This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian’s news coverage. Your questions — which may be edited for space — are answered here each Saturday by The Californian’s Robert Price.
Price: Last month Editor & Publisher magazine asked me to write a short column on a subject that grows more relevant by the day: The leaking of classified or privileged information and news media's duty to protect the confidential sources who provide it. I argue that recognizing and honoring sources' need for anonymity is vitally important; I would only add, as a postscript, that news organizations must weigh whether the public's right to know offsets, with sufficient certainty, the possible harm that publication could cause. And that's obviously a subjective, case-by-case call.
My brief essay, which appears in the industry magazine's current issue, is predicated on the assumption that the media outlet in question has made that determination — and that the public has a right to know when its government is straying dangerously toward corruption and authoritarianism. I'll share:
American needs leakers.
Agents of conscience — tipsters, internal dissidents, whistleblowers — are not simply the news media's indispensable partners, they are instruments of a free society.
As such they must be protected at all costs. Their information must be corroborated to the fullest extent possible, but their anonymity must be sacrosanct.
We witnessed an epic failure of that tenet in June when a national-security news outlet, The Intercept, failed to protect the identity of Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old contract employee at a National Security Agency eavesdropping center in Georgia. Winner gave The Intercept classified documents about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
The FBI says it identified Winner in part because the news site, seeking to confirm the document's authenticity, shared a copy with the NSA. In so doing, The Intercept inadvertently exposed its source: The photocopied document had telltale creases and barely discernible microdots that identified the printer's serial number, and the date and time of the printing. Those fingerprints, among other clues, pointed straight to Winner.
The FBI identified her with such ease, in fact, the Justice Department’s announcement of the charges coincided almost simultaneously with Intercept’s publication of the leaked document.
That a news organization staffed with some of the best operational security experts in the business could handle such a valuable gift so unskillfully is baffling.
But it also underscores the double-edged nature of these matters: It is simpler than ever today to purloin classified information but also to trace those leaks to their sources — and collect evidence for prosecution.
Winner's arrest sends a sobering message to the legions of NSA contractors: Government authorities, armed with increasingly sophisticated techniques, are more committed to rooting out leakers than perhaps ever before. The Obama administration prosecuted a record number of them, and the Trump administration, mindful that data leaks can undermine its alternative fact-based strategy of governance, seems prepared to follow suit.
Consequently, the next contractor who stumbles upon information that demands public scrutiny will think twice, and the media's obligation to hold government accountable becomes more difficult.
But, as Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who was accused under President Obama of felony espionage, told the Baltimore Sun in 2011: "Accountable government requires people to stand up, and if it means telling truth to power at risk, that's a necessary part."
The news media must do its part in that arrangement by redoubling its efforts to secure and protect agents of conscience.
Price: As many readers know, we've been test-driving three potential new columnists, all of them conservative. We've studied their work, considered your opinions and weighed the ideological makeup of our current dozen-or-so nationally syndicated columnists.
We have selected Stephen Moore, an economics journalist and author who previously served as the senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and as member of the Journal's editorial board. He is currently the chief economist for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity. Moore writes often about energy, especially fossils fuels, which we hope will be of particular interest to readers in this big-time oil town.
As I've noted before, our nationally syndicated columnists have zero job security. We keep them around only as long as they keep us informed and challenged.
Reader: I wanted to comment on your front page story Thursday ("Case dismissed: Kern County District Attorney drops all charges in mistaken identity incident involving police and local teenager," Aug. 3). There was an interview with Lisa Green, the Kern County D.A. I read the whole article and nobody asked Miss Green if she wanted to comment on President Trump's remark from last Friday in New York, on Long Island, where he is advocating for the cops to rough up the people in their custody. I can't imagine that the district attorney would not have wanted to make a comment about that.
Price: I agree, that was a golden opportunity. Every media outlet in the city was at that press conference,too. We don't get the D.A. in front of a microphone like that very often.
Reader: Danny Morrison writes on the Opinion pages. Does he really need a degree in psychology to express his views ("Where's Morrison's degree?," Letters to the editor, Aug. 3)? Where's Morrison's degree?? Last I heard, freedom of speech, although under attack by the narcissistic nabob in the White House, is very much alive. Just an observation. Myopic people look straight ahead, never glancing left or right, missing the logic (and beauty) that lies in the peripheral. TBC, I love you guys. I've been reading you longer than most of you have been alive. Keep me happy and continue printing Morrison's columns.
— Jim Smith
Price: Based on the volume of commentary he generates, good and bad, Morrison is earning his keep. That's one of the most important roles media companies can play: facilitating debate. Morrison's Aug. 1 column about understanding transgender people certainly did that.
Reader: I'm tempted to ask for more, more Garrison Keillor, but then too much of a good thing can dull the senses. His occasional observations have a soothing reassurance about them, reminders that tomatoes are still ripening and that we are all aging and learning as we go - some more effectively and gracefully than others.
His high school remembrances also subtly allude to the inevitability of history, that all we do, all we are, becomes indelibly etched in memory and in "immortal words in black type." He nudges us to pause, take a deep breath, look around us, notice the events unfolding and, most importantly, to contemplate our places in the history being recorded. That is the kind of wise advice we should all be heeding.
— Pamela Wildermuth
Price: Keillor's prose is so gentle and lyrical it can almost make one forget that he allows politics to sneak in. He writes only once a week, though, so we won't be able to satisfy your request for "more, more" — only "more," at best.
Reader: Some will do anything to push the agenda and remain relevant in a world Trump has convinced them is being eroded from under them. The Californian's Robert Price is great at these tactics. He prints mostly the kind of letters that appeal to Bakersfield radical Republican Christians who believe irrelevant garbage empowers them. Well, perhaps it really does.
Price prints letter from these radical republican Christians to no end. The usual suspects who meet with Price at Starbucks always get their say in Sound Off. However, even when this dwindling demographic doesn't send letters they make up anonymous trash, knowing well that pal Bob will print it. You can read any newspaper from the New York Times to the Marysville Appeal Democrat and you will never find unsigned letters such as those that frequent The Californian's Sound Off. But then again for all we know old Bob makes them up himself.
No one expects The Californian or Sound Off to change. Japan replaces its dwindling population with robots and The Californian's editors replace letters from real live people with unsigned letters they write on their coffee break.
— Panfilo Fuentes
Price: Pete, we print the letters we receive, and they come from all over the political/cultural spectrum. You know it, too, because you've got to be one of the most thorough, attentive readers we have. The predominant ideological bent of our letter writers seems to go in cycles, and right now I think they might lean a tad liberal. Check back in a week, though: Bakersfield's "radical Republican Christians" might well be riding high again.
Now to Sound Off. I've written this before, but it bears repeating: Letters to the editor must be signed with the writer's true and full name because people need to stand behind their opinions. We don't print anonymous letters.
Sound Off's purpose is to answer readers' questions and complaints about how we present the news and, more broadly, the state of news media in general. (Often a reader's question contains his opinion, of course, which can't be helped.) If a question is sufficiently valid, it doesn't matter to me if the reader's name is included, although obviously we prefer it.
What's a coffee break?
Reader: Your "Our Readers Rock" item of July 24 spotlighted a longtime reader of The Californian of five years. As a reader of 60-plus years, this seems a blink of an eye. She subscribes to her local Californian but gets the L.A. Times on Sundays for its "less conservative bent" over The Californian and its "ultra-conservative" readers. I have never met or been clear on who or what an "ultra-conservative" is. I have friends who tag me with this because I am a Republican. I have Democrat friends, Democrat-liberal friends and even Democrat-socialist friends. You don't see me putting tags on them. I just lump them all into Democrat-you're-wrong friends.
— Ronal Reynier
Price: Ronal, meet Panfilo. Panfilo, Ronal. Thank you both for your years of readership. Sorry we're so liberal. Er, conservative. Er ... ah, never mind.
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