Obama’s ‘war on journalism’ just a skirmish, argues Reuters media critic

'Special Report' All-Star panel weighs in


It must be nice being a Democratic president. No matter what you do – even investigate the press – there’s always someone in the media willing to defend it. The latest defense comes from Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer.

Shafer wrote a May 24 piece raising the question: “What war on the press?” His strange summary point was that “all this legal battering of the press, while real, hardly rises to the level of war.” Perhaps he wouldn’t consider it a war unless Obama started treating journalists like some third-world dictator.

The longtime media critic began with three massive paragraphs and nearly 400 words detailing how everybody from the lefties at The New York Times, Washington Post and Slate to libertarians at Reason or the Post’s quasi-conservative Jennifer Rubin all agreed “President Barack Obama has declared war on the press.”


Everybody but Shafer, that is. 

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Shafer’s 1,400-word half-hearted defense focused on “language in the affidavit for search warrant for Fox News reporter James Rosen’s emails,” because the document called it a “criminal offense.” 

The column then relied on an explanation from a George Washington University Law School professor who said that expression was “not a prelude to a prosecution.” So you can call journalism “criminal,” as long as you don’t prosecute today.

The rest of the piece agreed with journalists on most every point – but with finesse of a curveball pitcher nibbling at the corners. 

Shafer was never willing to completely admit things are as bad as the 10 separate news organizations he mentions claim. His nuances were reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s classic “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Shafer went on to admit that “there has been” a leak crackdown, but claimed it was mostly among bureaucrats and not journalists. He even noted that his colleagues compare the “tightlipped” administration to an information “black hole.”

But at every step along the way, Shafer undercut the arguments against Obama. He whined that the press also lobbies “just like any other interest group whose privilege is threatened by government laws, policies and prosecutions.” And naturally, he used the traditional liberal defense – blame Republicans, because they too have “cheered on leak-chasers.”

While that’s a traditional liberal defense, Shafer has proclaimed that he isn’t exactly liberal. 

He worked at the libertarian magazine Inquiry until 1984, according to an adoring profile by The American Journalism Review. And, in a 2000 election piece for Slate, he declared support for the Libertarian Party platform. “I agree with the Libertarian Party platform: much smaller government, much lower taxes, an end to income redistribution, repeal of the drug laws, fewer gun laws, a dismantled welfare state, an end to corporate subsidies, First Amendment absolutism, a scaled-back warfare state,” he wrote.

But his career and actions speak louder than those words. He spent more than a decade as editor of the left-wing alternative weekly, The Washington City Paper. And moved on from there to work at the lefty Slate until 2011.

He spent a lot of that time and who knows how many column inches bashing Fox and its owner Rupert Murdoch. (Writer’s Note: Murdoch also owns this website, in case you didn’t know.)

On Shafer’s own personal site, he has a prominent link to a “Hot Topic” called “Everything Murdoch.” That page includes 51 columns involving Fox or Murdoch and that’s just from 2007 to 2011. One post has the headline: “The wrong and the right reasons for hating the media mogul.” That’s a small flavor of his obsession.

It’s not like he stopped when he was laid off at Slate, either. 

A May 21 Reuters column criticized Fox reporter Rosen repeatedly “because he practiced poor journalistic tradecraft.” While Shafer defended the concept of Rosen’s reporting, his column was one long attack on it. “Even teenagers practice better tradecraft than this when deceiving parents,” he argued. 

That column started off with eight journalists and pundits criticizing the administration’s intrusion into the press. Every one of those names was in addition to the 10 he cited in his main administration defense three days later. But Shafer claimed these eight were just “grousing,” so it must not be that bad.

Shafer’s columns appear with the tagline: “Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.” Thankfully, among the media, that is pretty close to true. Shafer’s oddball defense of Obama needs to stay that way – an army of one.

Dan Gainor is the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently about media for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.