Obama Talks a Conciliatory Tone About News Leaks

The president responds to criticism administration is targeting journalists.

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The news media are pushing back hard against the administration for seizing journalists' phone and email records, while President Obama has begun taking a more conciliatory approach.

Obama directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review Justice Department guidelines for investigating journalists and to report back to him in July. In a speech to the National Defense University Thursday, Obama also said, "Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law."

This was an apparent reference to prosecuting leakers of classified information rather than the reporters and news organizations that use such information.

Obama added: "I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable."

[READ: Obama on the Defensive at Press Conference]

Obama said his goal is to balance the government's need to keep secrets with freedom of the press.

The Justice Department has seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors in a probe of leaks about a plot to bomb a U.S. airliner. The department is also examining the phone calls and emails of Fox News correspondent James Rosen for his reporting about North Korea.

These investigations have caused widespread outrage in the news media.

[READ: White House Press, Obama Aides Square Off]

A New York Times editorial Wednesday said Obama is going "beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news."

And Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes sent a memo to his staff Thursday condemning the administration in harsh terms. "The recent news about the FBI's seizure of the phone and email records of Fox News employees, including James Rosen, calls into question whether the federal government is meeting its constitutional obligation to preserve and protect a free press in the United States," Ailes wrote.

"We reject the government's efforts to criminalize the pursuit of investigative journalism and falsely characterize a Fox News reporter to a Federal judge as a 'co-conspirator' in a crime...."

"The administration's attempt to intimidate Fox News and its employees will not succeed and their excuses will stand neither the test of law, the test of decency nor the test of time. We will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth."

Fox has often been criticized by Obama supporters as being biased against the president.

Earlier, AP CEO Gary Pruitt criticized the Justice Department seizure of AP phone records and said, "I really don't know what their motive was. I know what the message they are sending was – if you talk to the press we are going to go after you."

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.