Press posers

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson revoked press credentials previously given to seven federal agents who were posing as news photographers at a civil trial in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The trial, attended by more than 90 journalists, was brought by two people suing the Aryan Nations on assault charges.
Although Watson prohibited the undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from posing as journalists, the government — fearing terrorist actions — still imposed strong and necessary security measures. SWAT teams escorted trial participants and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the grounds.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors has wisely cautioned that journalists will be unable to do their jobs if federal agents frequently pose as members of the media. “These tactics are an affront to working journalists and send a confusing and troubling message,” wrote the organization’s president, Richard Oppel, in separate letters to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh.
This is not the first time federal agents have been caught using press credentials to covertly acquire information. Officials used the technique during the civil rights movement and a similar case in Spokane Valley in 1996. The government has obviously not responded to the protests of the media since then and seems to regard the entire issue as frivolous.
The undercover agents’ actions are understandable. They wanted to photograph people they suspected were likely to commit crimes in the future. Their methods, however, are questionable. Most law enforcement agencies do not permit their employees to impersonate reporters. Each incident of government officials disguised as journalists harms the credibility of the press, leading the public to second-guess the intentions and identity of the media, which, if done frequently, will compromise the hard-earned trust between the press and its sources.
Predictably, the news media has been overwhelmingly opposed to the government’s actions. The editors association and the Society of Professional Journalists have voiced realistic concerns — which numerous editorials have echoed — that the FBI and ATF are undermining the often tenuous relationship between the press and the public.
The covert actions taken by the government have serious implications. Already, society holds a critical and frequently negative view of reporters, who depend on the public for accurate information. The press, unlike federal agents, relies on its reputation to succeed.