What exactly did John Lewis tell the Guardian about Edward Snowden?

Guardian reporter Paul Lewis misinterpreted U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ words about Edward Snowden, the congressman’s communications director tells Poynter.

The Guardian changed a headline on a piece published last Wednesday from “Veteran civil rights campaigner praises Snowden’s act of ‘civil disobedience” to “Veteran civil rights leader: Snowden acted in tradition of civil disobedience.” Removing “praises” was a “gesture of goodwill,” Guardian Senior Editor Matt Wells told Poynter over Twitter Thursday. But Brenda Jones, John Lewis’ communications director, said that correction — which the Guardian does not acknowledge on the page — “didn’t take care of the problem from our standpoint.”

Lewis’ office issued a statement Thursday saying, “I never praised Mr. Snowden or said his actions rise to those of Mohandas Gandhi or other civil rights leaders.”

The fulcrum of this dispute comes in the third paragraph of Paul Lewis’ piece, a sidebar to an interview with Rep. Lewis about the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary.

Asked in interview with the Guardian whether Snowden was engaged in an act of civil disobedience, Lewis nodded and replied: “In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, in keeping with the teaching of Henry David Thoreau and people like Gandhi and others, if you believe something that is not right, something is unjust, and you are willing to defy customs, traditions, bad laws, then you have a conscience. You have a right to defy those laws and be willing to pay the price.”

Jones said by phone that she was in the room with the congressman during the interview and that Paul Lewis’ question was not phrased that way. “I have heard Congressman Lewis talk about many great men, and there are very few of them he’d equate to Gandhi and Thoreau,” she said. “Definitely not Edward Snowden.” Jones said Paul Lewis’ question was not about whether Snowden engaged in an act of civil disobedience: “What do you think of Edward Snowden’s actions” is how she remembers it.

The Guardian provided Poynter with a transcript and audio of the interview, which I’ve transcribed myself.

Paul Lewis thanks the congressman and says he has “one last question” that’s “maybe tangentially related” to the March.

Paul Lewis: I was speaking to an African-American congressman recently, and we were talking about Edward Snowden and what should happen. And he mentioned that there was a strong history in the country of civil disobedience, breaking the law in pursuit of your conscience, believing that what you’re doing is something that is for the greater good. Do you think that description can explain what Mr. Snowden has done, given all of the outcome we’ve seen in recent weeks and laws being passed and things being classified, action being taken in Congress?

John Lewis: Well, in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence and keeping with the teaching of David Thoreau and people like Gandhi and others, and if you believe in something, that it’s not right, and something that is unjust, and you’re willing to defy customs, tradition, bad laws, then you have a conscience. You have a right to defy those laws and be willing to pay the price. And that’s what we did. I got arrested 40 times during the ’60s. And since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve been arrested four times. Sometimes you have act by the dictates of your conscience. You have to do it.

Paul Lewis: He said what he was doing, obviously it was not an act of violence in any way, he recognized he was breaking the law but believed he was doing it because he was doing it for the betterment of America. Others would like to cast what he’s doing as an act of criminality, pure and simple.

John Lewis: Criminality, treason or whatever — he could say he was acting because he was appealing to a higher law. Many of us have some real, real problems with how the government has been spying on people. We had that problem during the height of the civil rights movement. Had people spied on, got information from Dr. King, on Martin Luther King Jr., tried to use it against him, on the movement, tried to plant people within different organizations that probably led to the destruction of some of those groups.

John Lewis would hardly be the first politician to try to walk back remarks that he regretted. Nor would the Guardian be the first news organization to be stingy with corrections: Guardian spokesperson Gennady Kolker echoes Wells’ words, telling Poynter via email the Guardian amended its original headline “out of respect for the Congressman’s right to clarify.”

Jones says Paul Lewis may lack the background to hear what the congressman was really saying: that he was in no position to judge Snowden’s action.

“I don’t think that [Paul Lewis] really got that the significance of him saying that was if you do this, you need to be prepared to pay the price. But in a Southern context, those are equally weighted,” Jones said.

The congressman’s mentions of Gandhi and Thoreau, she said, were his way of trying to show Paul Lewis how he frames his thoughts, Jones said. “It’s just like you might say, ‘as it’s written in the Bible’ — that doesn’t mean you’re equating what the person did with Jesus Christ.”

“To be frank with you,” she continued, “one of the reasons I steer away from the British press is there are a lot of subtleties in many of these issues that get lost in translation.”

Is Paul Lewis any more ill-equipped to correctly interpret the responses of a 73-year-old African-American member of Congress, than, say, a native of Seattle would be? As a Virginia native who’s been married for nearly 15 years to a woman from Edinburgh, Scotland, I can aver that cultural mixups can occur between two people who speak what’s purportedly the same language. But those can also happen when I’m talking with friends from New York (hmm, maybe the problem is me).

In his email, Kolker says that “Based on what the Congressman’s spokesperson told you over the phone, they are now claiming that WE misinterpreted the Congressman’s words. The transcript and audio show otherwise.”

OK, so let’s go back to the audio. Paul Lewis’ question to John Lewis seems incredibly leading and not remotely related to the March on Washington. For him to place so much importance on a nod by the congressman should have sent some editor’s antennae rocketing into the ceiling tiles. Jones told me the congressman often nods to reporters to signal he understands their questions.

But listening to the recording, I can certainly see how Paul Lewis would come away from this interview under the impression that John Lewis thought Edward Snowden was acting within the tradition of civil rights. John Lewis is a towering figure in the U.S. civil rights movement, as Paul Lewis points out, and his thoughts on such matters are worth noting.

But if Lewis’ words to this effect merited a headline, a sidebar, and a tweet proclaiming what Paul Lewis and his editors interpreted as support for Snowden, shouldn’t the congressman’s insistence that that’s not what he meant deserve, if not the same banner treatment, at least some recognition in the text? “We do not plan to revisit the issues raised by Lewis’ statement,” Kolker told me by email.

“Sensationalism is more accepted in their construct than in ours,” Jones told me about the differences between British and U.S. journalism. “I think they have a ‘take it and run’ kind of feeling.” Until the Guardian gives John Lewis’ statement the same sort of play it gave Paul Lewis’ first understanding of his words, that critique prevails.

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  • daveinboca

    I met Lewis at the Chicago Convention when I was working on Gene McCarthy’s staff. My memories were of a well-meaning young man who seemed almost disoriented on ganga, devil weed, the green dragon. I wonder if he is still in way over his head.

  • Alfred Ingram

    It’s willful ignorance to compare Congressman Lewis, the Civil Rights Workers or Gandhi with Snowden, They broke laws they believed were morally wrong and paid the price of arrest and imprisonment while appealing to the courts. Congressman Lewis was almost killed and others were killed, but they took that risk to challenge what they believed was wrong. Snowden is more like the so called anarchists who join a peaceful demonstration and break store windows along the march route. They never stand up to be arrested. Theey hide in the crowd and provoke aviolent response which they self righteously condemn.