Prosecuted New York Times reporter speaks at journalism school event

Alex Menendez/UCB Graduate School of Journalism/Courtesy
New York Times reporter James Risen speaks in an event titled "Prosecuting the Press" at Stanley Hall. Risen faces incarceration for refusing to disclose his sources.

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James Risen, the New York Times reporter facing imprisonment for refusing to disclose his sources, denounced the federal government’s infringement on the press in a rare public appearance Thursday, saying it is time for journalists to “surrender or fight.”

Risen spoke to a crowd of about 300 lawyers, journalists and others at Berdahl Auditorium in Stanley Hall on Thursday evening in a talk hosted by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism titled “Prosecuting the Press.” He spoke alongside Lowell Bergman, director of the graduate school’s Investigative Reporting Program.

The lack of protection for national security reporters, he said, has allowed the federal government to demand that journalists like him reveal their sources, which threatens the integrity of the press.

“The basic issue is, can we continue as journalists to protect and offer the confidentiality to someone who knows something going on in the government but doesn’t want to go public?” he asked the audience, which included high-profile guests such as Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.

Risen faces incarceration after refusing to comply with a 2008 subpoena issued by a federal grand jury demanding that he testify in the case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling is charged with allegedly leaking information included in a chapter of Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

Risen’s lawyers are preparing an appeal for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Risen said his initial surprise at the subpoena subsided as President Barack Obama adopted more and more national security laws established by the Bush administration, using the events of 9/11 to increase federal scrutiny of journalists.

“When I first started covering the CIA in the ’90s, everyone knew what the game was,” he said. “You would write a story, the government would be upset, they would do a leak investigation and you never heard about it. Nobody wanted to go to war.”

The increased prosecution of journalists, Bergman said, will turn reporting into “more of a guerilla war.” Without a media shield law, “we are going to have to learn new ways to truthfully ensure confidentiality,” he said.

When asked about whether he was concerned about his own well-being, Risen said he thought about it for a long time before he decided to publish his book.

“I thought, I either publish these stories or I’m getting out of journalism,” he said. “The default position for a reporter should be to publish.”

The talk is a first in a series of events hosted by the Graduate School of Journalism to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Contact Savannah Luschei at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @savluschei.