SMU Professor Tony Pederson discusses journalism vs. treason

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Professor Tony Pederson speaking during panel discussion.

A United States Apache helicopter spots eight unarmed civilians in the streets of New Baghdad. The American soldiers communicate with their commander through a walkie-talkie, informing him that the Iraqi individuals are armed, and one has opened fire. They request permission to engage with the civilians. Their request is approved.

“Light ‘em all up.”

“Come on, fire!”

They have engaged with all eight individuals.

That dialog was part of a two-minute clip of a classified video that was published on the WikiLeaks website on April 4, 2010. SMU Professor Tony Pederson, and the Belo Distinguished Chair of Journalism, showed the clip during the second panel discussion held in the Mack Ballroom of the Umphrey Lee Center Feb. 17.

No charges were filed against the American troops in the Apache helicopter that shot and killed the civilians in 2007.

However, Chelsea Manning, the United States Army soldier who released the video to WikiLeaks, was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act in July 2013, according to Pederson. She was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment, with possible parole in the eighth year.

While Manning is not a journalist, she faced the same consequences that many reporters face. The U.S. government often cracks down on what is available to those covering political and military affairs.

Are journalists entitled to protection? That’s a question Pederson asked the crowd of about 75. Can the government cover up what they’re doing or prevent journalists from learning the truth?

“Government protection determines how the media can perform,” said Pederson.

When Pederson first graduated college in 1973 and went to work for the Houston Chronicle, it was a different time for news media. When the young journalist had a meeting with the city editor, the editor would pull out two paper cups and a bottle of Bourbon whiskey from his desk drawer.

Pederson joked about the “old school” ways, and how that type of meeting would never happen today.

“The way news media is conducted has changed dramatically,” said Pederson.

He attributes most of the change to the USA Patriot Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001,which expands government control over the information that is available to the media and public.

Furthermore, Pederson’s main focus during the panel discussion was to bring to light the oppression that the government has placed on news media.

Pederson provided several examples in which journalists have released classified government documents to the media, including when American computer professional Edward Snowden leaked top-secret information from the National Security Agency.

James Risen, an investigative reporter for the New York Times since 1998, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his stories concerning Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.

The Justice Department under Bush subpoenaed Risen, and President Obama renewed the subpoena in 2009.

According to Pederson, Risen once referred to the Obama administration as “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Before Obama was elected into office, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify and expose her source before a federal grand jury.

“Should the government be held accountable, or are these people traitors?” Pederson asked while comparing journalism and treason.

History has shown us that the government can hide and cover up political-military affairs.

“What is reporter’s privilege?” senior journalism student Caroline Mendes tweeted during the panel discussion.

According to Pederson, reporter’s privilege is currently the most limited that it has ever been.

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