The war on press freedom

Ken Silva in Reason: The U.S. plummeted to a dismal 49th place on the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, marking the country’s second lowest ranking since the list was created in 2002 and its lowest since 2006. Other countries ranked in the 40s and 50s include Haiti, Mongolia, and Chile.

The index cited “judicial harassment” of New York Times reporter James Risen, the arbitrary arrest of at least 15 journalists during the Ferguson, Missouri clashes, and the fact that U.S. journalists are still not legally entitled to protect sources who reveal confidential information about their work.

The U.S.’s slip in press freedom rankings mirrors its seven-place drop in Freedom House’s Global Press Freedom Index from 2013-2014, though the country still ranks among the 14 percent of countries whose press is classified as “free” in the latter scale.

Reality may be even worse than the rankings suggest. Legal protections for the press have only eroded since the 2006 trough year when the Bush Administration threatened to prosecute Risen for publishing stories chronicling warrantless wiretapping of citizens’ phone calls.

Since the Obama Administration took power, it has used the Espionage Act to prosecute data leakers a record seven times — more than every other president combined in the law’s nearly 100-year history — a Fox News journalist has been spied on by the Justice Department under the justification that he’s a criminal conspirator, Wikileaks creator Julian Assange has been declared “a hi-tech terrorist,” and the Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court ruling against Risen stating that the First Amendment doesn’t protect him from refusing to testify about a whistle-blower that allegedly leaked classified information about the CIA’s efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

End America’s overreliance on jails

Katrina VandenHeuvel in the Washington Post: Although we hear plenty about increasing rates of mass incarceration within state and federal prisons, we hear much less about the role played by local jails.

This silence should be startling, as there are 11.7 million local jail admissions every year in the United States — twice as many as there were 20 years ago — compared to 631,000 state and federal prison admissions.

The problem looks especially stark, and constitutionally troublesome, when you consider that, at any given moment, some three-fifths of the 722,000 prisoners in America’s local jails have not been convicted of the alleged crime for which they’re being detained.

Many, in fact, are simply too poor to post even a small bail to get out while their cases are being processed.

A recently released report from the Vera Institute of Justice paints a disturbing picture.

It found that nearly 75 percent of local-jail admits are suspects who have committed nonviolent crimes like traffic, property, drug, or public-order offenses — people, in other words, who rarely pose a significant risk to public safety and who don’t need to be incarcerated.

Further, the report found that the social cost of the rapid growth of incarceration in local jails has been compounded by its enormous monetary cost to taxpayers.

From 1982 to 2011, the cost of building and running jails increased by nearly 235 percent. “Of the more than $60 billion spent annually on correctional institutions,” the report says, “$22.2 billion is spent by local jurisdictions.” What’s more, the racial disparities that define so many aspects of our criminal justice system — from stop-and-frisk to mass prison incarceration — are fixtures of local jails, too. While blacks and Latinos comprise nearly a third of the overall prison population, they represent half of prisoners in local facilities.

In defense of ‘gotcha’ questions

Ron Fournier in National Journal: In 1999, I asked Texas Gov. George W. Bush a series of questions designed to trip him up on abortion — or at least knock him off balance. His staff dismissed them as gotchas; I suppose they were right. And yet the governor’s answers revealed the inherent conflicts of his compassionate conservatism.

While backing a constitutional ban on abortions, Bush said, “America is not ready to ban abortions.”

Two years later, I asked Bush the first question at a news conference in Slovenia with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Is this a man that Americans can trust?” My editor and I had scripted a meatier two-part question about the U.S.-Russia relationship. This was a throwaway line, appended hastily to the end of the substantial stuff.

“Yes,” Bush replied, before allowing Putin to answer a separate question. A few minutes later, the American president elaborated: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

Bush told his staff later that I had caught him off guard. I had put him on the spot.

Not wanting to openly question Putin’s credibility, Bush nervously riffed his way into a quote that still reflects the tendency of U.S. officials to underestimate the Russian leader.

Bush’s answer made it a good question.

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