When Bloomberg spotted a Department of Homeland Security RFP for a database of journalists and sources, classified by how friendly or hostile they were to the DHS, it struck many of us as sinister, especially under an administration whose official, on-the-record position is that the free press is an enemy of the USA.
But the DHS's Press Secretary Tyler Houlton dismissed these concerns on Twitter, saying "this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media. Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists."
He's not entirely wrong. Organizations that talk to the press are well-served to maintain some kind of record of their earlier interactions with journalists. I sometimes experience the other side of this, whether it's publishers pitching me on reviewing book two in a series when I've already passed on book one; or that time a PR person working for a company that spent years unsuccessfully suing us for criticizing its products asked me if I'd consider that selfsame product for inclusion in our Christmas shopping guide.
But of course, the DHS isn't a scammy gadget marketer or a pulp fiction publisher: they're a largely unaccountable authoritarian agency whose members have shown themselves to be lawless, out-of-control, racist, and spectacularly corrupt, with no respect for the rule of law, even when it comes to their own members.
The DHS is right to assert that organizations routinely assemble in-house lists of journalist contacts, with notes about their earlier interactions with the organization -- but the DHS isn't just another organization, and its official dismissal of its critics and unwillingness to thoughtfully engage with criticism shows exactly why we should be worried.
In spite of Houlton's aggressive response, which was sent to press who'd asked the DHS for comment about the contract, Bloomberg's report didn't include an implication of why or how the contracted job would play out—other than to point out the Trump administration's use of "fake news" as a frequent qualifier and the US Senate's recent interest in flagging Al Jazeera as a foreign agent. The news follows Obama administration efforts, spearheaded largely by the Department of Justice, to seize journalists' emails using the Espionage Act, increase surveillance pressure on journalists, and prosecute leakers of classified secrets.
DHS defends media-monitoring database, calls critics “conspiracy theorists” [Sam Machkovech/Ars Technica]