An FBI raid on the home of a Tampa-based journalist, and the seizure of his computer, hard drives, cellphone and all they contain, is raising questions about the fidelity of the Department of Justice to a year-old revision to its News Media Policy announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Under that policy, the Department is forbidden from using compulsory legal processes to obtain the newsgathering records of journalists, except in extreme circumstances.
Now a wide spectrum of press freedom and civil liberties organizations are asking the Department of Justice to provide transparency about this FBI raid in May. The FBI executed its search warrant at the home of journalist Tim Burke, which he shares with his wife, Tampa city councilwoman Lynn Hurtak. The credibility of this extreme action is highly questionable, leaving the Department to explain how this ransacking of a journalist’s home and seizure of his devices differs from the now-widely ridiculed police raid on a newspaper in rural Kansas.
Burke is a former staffer of The Daily Beast and Deadspin. The reporting that put him in crosshairs of the FBI ran in Vice News and Media Matters for America (MMFA). Yet many civil libertarians are voicing suspicions, based on a government response brief, that DOJ may not regard Burke as a valid journalist worthy of the enhanced protections afforded reporters under the Privacy Protection Act of 1980.
What we can say is that the FBI criminal investigation involves purported “hacking” of Fox News under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and wiretapping laws. Burke reported on embarrassing outtake videos from former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s interview with Ye – formerly known as Kanye West – which were then published by Vice News MMFA.
In the outtakes, Ye comes across as deranged and in serious need of help, voicing one ugly, juvenile antisemitic conspiracy theory after another. Carlson cut these lengthy and offensive rants from the interview, making Ye appear far more thoughtful than he is. Carlson concluded his show by saying that Ye is “not crazy” and is “worth listening to.” It is easy to see why even after Fox News fired Carlson that it would find these outtakes embarrassing.
Fox News has since been intent on identifying the source of the leak. Fox sent a letter to MMFA earlier this month, demanding the outlet stop airing videos that were “unlawfully obtained.” MMFA president Angelo Carusone responded: “Reporting on newsworthy leaked material is a cornerstone of journalism ... Like any respectable media outlet, we won’t discuss confidential sourcing of any of our materials.”
For his part, Burke says he obtained the unaired portions of the Tucker Carlson interview with Ye by visiting a publicly available website used to transmit live feeds of broadcasts. Fox News had apparently uploaded the video to the public site without encrypting it or keeping anyone from downloading it.
Burke did use a user ID and password for a “demo account” provided to him by a source. That source, Burke says, found the credentials on a public website, without any restriction on their use. Given these facts suggest an impingement on the First Amendment and the practice of journalism, Attorney General Garland should direct the Department of Justice to provide a degree of transparency in this case. Among questions that need to be answered:
Burke claims he obtained the outtakes from a public source, with help from a source who knew how to access publicly posted credentials to download the raw interview.
There may be legitimate answers to some of these questions that put the Department’s actions in a better light. If they do not, however, DOJ and the FBI run the risk of resembling the bumbling, Barney Fife-like police chief in Kansas who raided a newspaper and, by the way, just resigned.