By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Just when we’re told that “mainstream journalism” is heading the way of the Edsel, an odd corporate imbroglio is proving that news hounds are doing something right.
Why else would technology giant Hewlett-Packard risk its corporate reputation—let alone its stock price—on a weird plan to spy on reporters at publications ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to Internet-based CNet, which covers the technology industry? As wacky as the still-unfolding plot might sound, it is dead serious. And it should worry everyone who believes the press is critical to keeping power in check, whether it’s wielded by those in the boardrooms or the political backrooms.
Besides plotting to infiltrate newsrooms with spies posing as janitors, Hewlett-Packard’s hired gumshoes schemed to trick a CNet reporter by sending her an e-mail tagged with markers that would trace its recipients if she forwarded it. CNet senior reporter Dawn Kawamoto actually corresponded briefly with a fictitious company “insider’’ who supposedly authored the doctored e-mail—but only to tell him she’d be leaving soon on vacation. The company apparently then used cellphone records to uncover where Kawamoto was traveling—to Disneyland.
“I feel very violated and outraged at this,’’ Kawamoto said in an e-mail response to questions. “Not only was my privacy violated, my family’s privacy was violated and my ability to do my job was challenged.”
Being targeted by iniquitous corporate honchos isn’t quite the same as having your name turn up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, with the president of the United States ordering up a search of your IRS files. Nor is having your e-mails implanted with high-tech trackers quite the same as being hauled off to prison to protect your sources—a prospect now faced by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke open baseball’s steroid scandal, in part by publishing leaked grand jury testimony of superstar Barry Bonds.
Still, the Hewlett-Packard scandal is another strain of a virulent antagonism toward the press that is infecting the body politic.
Among partisans on both the right and left, mainstream journalists are continually attacked as biased—even though both sides couldn’t simultaneously be correct. Among many of the newspaper industry’s corporate masters, reporting staffs are now considered “cost centers” to be cut, rather than necessities for producing a comprehensive and unflinching publication that serves readers. Among some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, reporters who have broken some of the most important stories about the war on terrorism—from the revelation that the U.S. government ran secret prisons overseas to the president’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ international phone calls—are considered guilty of treason. The House of Representatives even voted to condemn major newspapers for revealing information about an administration program to track terrorist financing.
Federal prosecutors have abandoned what had been a reluctance to pursue journalists as part of probes into wrongdoing by others. In the past two years, according to the American Journalism Review, more than 30 reporters have faced subpoenas or questioning from federal court officials about their confidential sources. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is vigorously opposing a bipartisan bill that would create, along the lines of 49 states and the District of Columbia, a federal shield law for journalists. In this political atmosphere, who could blame Hewlett-Packard for believing it could spy on reporters—or even try to intimidate them?
Trouble is, the latest crusade against leaks, at least as practiced by the government, is that it has all the hallmarks of a political campaign. Few, if any, conservatives rose up to condemn leaks out of prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s office when he was probing various Clinton administration scandals, real or imagined. President Bush himself praised the work of the journalists who uncovered the steroid scandal. Indeed, politicians of every persuasion saw this as a Mom-and-apple-pie leak: It prompted a high-profile House committee investigation into drug use in sports and led to reforms by Major League Baseball.
Simultaneously, though, the president has condemned disclosures about methods of tracking terrorist financing as “disgraceful,’’ while he’s kept stone silent about the role of senior administration officials in blowing the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Hypocrisy is one of the many sins of the powerful that good journalism is supposed to expose.
And having a vigorous press is required for a vibrant democracy. That means reporters doing an honest day’s work shouldn’t be prosecuted for it—or spied upon because they succeed.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.