Rarely has the White House briefing room so resembled the main ballroom at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
After news broke of a sweeping Justice Department subpoena of The Associated Press telephone records, White House press secretary Jay Carney didn't so much have to deal with querulous reporters pressing him on all fronts. He had to deal with citizens bristling with anger over perceived encroachments on their rights by an overweening government.
The AP subpoena is the media's Obamacare. Their Glenn Beck is AP President Gary Pruitt; their Tea Party Express is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and their rallying cry is "Give me liberty or give me death!"
The reaction to the seizure of records on 20 office and personal lines of AP staff is another reminder, if we needed one, that what the press cares about most is itself.
The New York Times sniffed at the Internal Revenue Service scandal. It didn't even put the initial story on the front page. But the paper rebuked the Obama administration for the AP subpoena in an editorial titled "Spying on The Associated Press": The administration has "a chilling zeal for investigating leaks" and is trying "to frighten off whistleblowers."
It sounds like the Times should go back and read President Barack Obama's commencement address at Ohio State University the other day, where he lamented that the students have been hearing warnings that government is "nothing more than some separate, sinister entity" and "that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner."
Yes, why can't all the journalists hyped up about the AP subpoena simply put more trust in the good intentions of their own government?
The Justice Department subpoena was overbroad and appears to have violated guidelines that say all other alternatives should be exhausted before resorting to such an expansive search. The press is right to be upset, and it is notable that the Bush administration never went this far. Still, some perspective is in order: There is no right to traffic in illegally obtained classified information.
Yet few in the press are interested in nuance. Appealing for calm, Carney said the president believes in an "unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism," but that there should be "balance." The implicit reaction of journalists was: "Balance? Don't give us any stinkin' balance. Give us our rights."
In this, the reporters exhibited a healthy impulse toward vigilance about liberty. The phrase "chilling effect" has been bandied about often. A chill comes not necessarily from what government is doing to you but from what it might do to you. Very few reporters will ever have their records subpoenaed, but it is intolerable to them that it could happen. On top of everything else, it is the principle of the thing — an infringement, or even a potential infringement, on the constitutional rights of even a handful of reporters is an affront to all.
There are lots of people who share this way of thinking about rights and government. Some of them gather every year at places like CPAC and the National Rifle Association annual convention.
Scorn was heaped on the NRA for opposing new gun rules out of the very same logic that compels reporters to react so strongly against the AP subpoena. The NRA will not abide an infringement of anyone's legitimate right to bear arms, and it fears what could come of enhanced state power. Like the reporters, it casts a jaundiced eye on the reassurances of government. What they are to the First Amendment, it is to the Second.
Journalists should learn from this moment. Maybe they should stop rolling their eyes when the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talk of the Constitution. Maybe they should credit the skepticism about government of the tea party, which was right in its early complaints about the IRS. Maybe, after nearly five years, they should invest the phrase "adversarial press" with true meaning.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and a variety of other publications. Read more reports from Rich Lowry — Click Here Now.