Columbia School of Journalism dean: ‘The Obama administration is taking it a little bit far’

Jeff Poor Media Reporter
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On Hugh Hewitt’s radio show earlier this week, outgoing Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann reacted to the Obama administration’s tactics in investigating leaks to journalists.

Lemann said there was a sense of “outrage” over the seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists and surveillance of Fox News Channel’s James Rosen.

“The reaction is pretty much outrage,” Lemann said. “You know, there was a time, a really long time ago, when administrations and journalists were really cozy, and it probably happened more in Democratic administrations such as the famous incident when President John F. Kennedy went from the last inaugural ball to Joseph Alsop’s house for a party. But you know, the Obama administration is taking it a little bit far. But really, you know, the press and White House have a hostile relationship. And this is merely the latest example. Reporters, as is their job, try to pry loose information that administrations don’t want out there. But I do think you do cross a line when you start using legal means to essentially spy on reporters.”

Lemann said it wasn’t quite to the stage of being “Nixionian,” but in practice he said the Obama administration’s handling of the press is in some ways worse than former President Richard Nixon’s administration.

“I don’t know about my colleagues in the East Coast journalism world. In connection with a long ago book project, I actually spent about a year in the Nixon archives,” he said. “And so I would say you have to get to a pretty high bar to get to Nixonian. I sat at the next table from the late, great Stephen Ambrose, who was no great liberal, and he could have had, twice a day, he would smack his forehead and say can you believe this? So I don’t think we’re quite to Nixonian, yet. But Nixon arguably wasn’t as bad with the press as this.”

Lemann said it is plausible that President Barack Obama had no knowledge of what was going on, possibly because his chief of staff was trying to protect him.

“I do find it believable, because part of the culture of the White House is always protect the President like crazy, and this administration does that to a T,” he added. “Most administrations end up having some kind of rogue cabinet member or staffer who builds up a reputation that’s separate from and sort of orthogonal to the president’s, and this administration does not. So I’m not defending what the IRS did, but I do find it plausible that the chief of staff would say you know what, the President would want this done, but he doesn’t need to know about it, let’s keep him clean on this.”

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