U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has announced more restrictive guidelines for how the government may obtain journalists' telephone records and e-mails to investigate leaks of sensitive information. It's a step in the right direction from an administration that has not shown itself too friendly toward the Fourth Estate.
Last year, the Justice Department secretly examined two months' worth of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, including those in Hartford. The goal was to find out how information about a foiled terrorism plot was leaked — but the tactics were contemptible.
After the secret actions came to light, the resulting furor led President Obama to ask Mr. Holder for clarification of leak-investigation rules.
The Justice Department must now notify news organizations beforehand if it wants to subpoena phone records, but there's a catch. No such notice need be given if an advance warning would "present a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
The attorney general personally must approve exceptions, which is an improvement on the previous rule that lower-level officials could give the OK.
The new guidelines say that search warrants for journalists' records will not be sought if the reporters or editors are pursuing "ordinary news-gathering activities." That's good — although it would be better if the government took such a policy for granted, without the need to codify it.
The Obama administration claims to value freedom of the press, but its record says otherwise. Since Mr. Obama has been in the White House, federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges against journalists in seven cases related to leaks; that's more than twice as many such filings as happened under all other presidents combined.
What's really needed is action by Congress on so-called "media shield" legislation, which has been languishing for years but was reintroduced in both the House and the Senate in May. Every state except Wyoming has such a law; the federal government doesn't.
Because leaks often involve federal issues, it's high time there was national legislation to protect journalists — and, not incidentally, the public who are the beneficiaries of their reporting.