Attorney General Eric Holder. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) Attorney General Eric Holder. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations. Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media. We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws.

This was the D.C. U. S. Attorney’s Office’s statement, when news broke that the Department of Justice had subpoenaed and obtained two months of Associated Press phone records. The bolds are mine.

The whole thing reminds me of a quote from Tom Stoppard’s “Night and Day.” One character remarks: “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” His companion replies: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

That seems to be the case here. Secretly obtaining two months of phone records? I quail to imagine what would have happened if they didn’t value the freedom of the press.

The chief executive of the AP wrote a letter of protest to the Department of Justice about the fact that the DOJ had secretly obtained two months of AP’s phone records — covering more than 20 telephone lines and possibly 100 reporters — in which he noted, “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.” Their lawyer, in an interview with the Post’s Erik Wemple, noted that “this action is a dagger to the heart of the AP’s news-gathering activity.”

You’d think that anyone hoping to stifle press freedom would have realized that a more practical course is to just wait 10 or 20 years, by which time journalism will consist entirely of long strings of GIFs about how much we miss the 90s. (Actually, this is unduly pessimistic; people read and pass around long, in-depth, hard-hitting stories, too.) Although one might have said something similar 10 years ago. The press is the wealthy great-grandfather who shows no signs of keeling over from natural causes. “You say you’re dying,” they whimpered. “You’ve said that for decades now. So why are you still asking questions?” It’s like Lindsay Lohan — ruining every Celebrity Death Pool for the past near-decade. She’ll outlive all of us.

The press has insisted for so many years that it was Dying, On Its Very Last Legs, About To Hop the Twig and Join the Choir Invisible, that perhaps the Justice Department started to believe it. But it only goes so far. King Duncan may be ailing, but you can’t just wander in and try to stifle him with a pillow. He might not be as vigorous as he used to be, but he can still shout and alert the rest of the floor. And these geezers still wield a pretty feisty cane. Sure, it might not be like tangling with them in their prime, but — you can’t expect a clean getaway after a move like that. At the very least, he’s going to omit that flattering mention of you in the will.

Thomas Jefferson said that between a country with government and no newspapers or newspapers and no government, he’d take the latter every time. Given the way the government has been behaving lately, I’m not sure the man didn’t have a point.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".