The Justice Department took two wise steps to strengthen protection for the news media last week, signaling – dare we hope? – a new and more enlightened view by the Obama administration of the rights of reporters to do their jobs without fear of government prosecution.

As he prepares to leave his job, Attorney General Eric Holder eliminated a loophole in the department’s rules that made it easier for prosecutors to subpoena journalists. At the same time, a federal prosecutor gave up on efforts to force a New York Times reporter to supply testimony in a trial over government leaks.

The latter decision is particularly significant. It signals the end of a seven-year fight by the federal government to force James Risen of The New York Times to identify a confidential source. Risen had made it clear that he was prepared to go to jail rather than reveal unnamed sources he relied on in writing “State of War,” a book describing U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.

The chilling effect of forcing Risen to identify sources would cripple the First Amendment. Think about it: Without the freedom to report on “secret” government activity, Americans would remain in the dark about many of the biggest controversies and abuses of the last 13 years: drones, waterboarding, secret prisons in Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere, National Security Agency snooping and much more.