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Media Covers Itself In Privacy Debacles


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Pair of unrelated stories this week, both involving the news media, served to remind a lot of Americans of how little information that we may assume to be private, really is private. One story involves the U.S. Justice Department's efforts to find out who reporters are talking to; the other, reporters secretly monitoring their sources' activities.

We're joined now by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, from New York. David, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Let me ask you first the AP story, if you please. The Justice Department issued subpoenas to cover 20 phone lines for editors and reporters at the Associated Press over a period of weeks, last spring. What does this entail?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it means that what they really do is, they go to the telephone companies and say, give us the records for these phone lines. And - as you say - it's 20 phones, which just to give some context, is an exceptionally broad request; usually, they want the phone lines of one or two reporters or journalists involved.

It's broadened even further by virtue of the fact that a number of those phone lines were themselves major switchboards. So the switchboard for one of the chief congressional press galleries up there on Capitol Hill, in Washington, they asked - that. Well, think of how many calls flood through. The main corporate switchboard here, in New York City, think how many thousands of calls scroll through there. So in effect, this Justice Department has gotten its hands on an astonishing window into the conversations, and traffic, that are held by its journalists on an everyday basis.

One of the concerns of journalists is in the breadth of this, that they will now have a snapshot of - over a couple weeks, as you say - for whom they're talking to, and how often, and for what length; in a way that may be uncomfortably revelatory, from the press' standpoint.

SIMON: The government says look, national security information was leaked; it's our mission to find out how.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's a legitimate national security concern. But that said, you know, there was concern about a plot that the American government had been involved in trying to disrupt - and did so successfully, in Yemen - trying to target jet airliners with bombs. That said, they're supposed to narrowly tailor their requests. And they're also supposed to do it in a way - on the whole, according to Justice Department guidelines - that allows the press to be aware of it; that is, that they're informed that the Justice Department wants certain records and in certain circumstances, take them to court. Instead, in this case, what they did was they got the deputy attorney general to sign off on not in telling the Associated Press about it at all. And that meant the AP didn't have a chance to challenge this in court.

SIMON: And let me ask you about the Bloomberg news story. Goldman Sachs, and at least one other financial services company, discovered that Bloomberg reporters had been monitoring their employees' activities. How did this work?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you think of the Bloomberg financial model - basically, they have these glorious terminals that they charge $20,000 a year for access, for each terminal. And the idea is, their data is so rich, so indispensible that if you're dealing with a commercial world, if you're dealing with financial markets, you really have to have access to that.

But what they do is, they have an extraordinary reservoir of information about the way in which their clients use that data; the way in which people might slice and dice what kinds of information they want access to. And it turns out that their reporters for their news division - which isn't really a money-generating division for them, but it's the bunting that's wrapped around this financial data company - that those reporters had access, to a degree, to the activities of their clients online. The clients are outraged. They say, well, what the heck is this? We're signing up to get access to your data, not to give our information over to you.

SIMON: And yesterday, Bloomberg appointed an independent adviser.

FOLKENFLIK: They did. Sam Palmisano is the former chairman and CEO of IBM. He's going to be undertaking a thorough review of the privacy standards and practices at the company. And they've also appointed Clark Hoyt. He's an editor-at-large at Bloomberg, but perhaps better known as the former public editor - or ombudsman - of The New York Times. And he's going to be undertaking a very thorough review of the relationship between Bloomberg's news division, and that commercial and financial data side of the company on which its fortunes rest.

SIMON: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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