Snowden’s leaks force media self-examination

Besides forcing government and national-security institutions to face the public about their spying efforts, Edward Snowden’s decision to release information on America’s massive public surveillance efforts has thrown another system into a flurry of self-examination:

The American news media.

As New York Times columnist David Carr explored on Monday, Snowden’s leaks raise the question of who actually qualifies as a journalist. It’s not just a philosophical question: the government tends to shy from prosecuting reporters for the kind of information gathering that gets a spy or public citizen jailed. Carr and the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan both tackled discussions about who gets to be a journalist and the implications of how that question is answered.

I tend to side with thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen and City University of New York’s Jeff Jarvis, who note that tools available through smartphones and the Internet allow anyone to become a reporter. Given that, the question changes from “Who is a journalist?” to “What is journalism?”

I talked about this nearly two years ago, as the first speaker at the Poynter Institute’s debut TEDx event, in a presentation titled “Journalism as an act.” The title came from an observation I made after watching a local “hot talk” radio personality and a woman who usually makes adult videos turn briefly into news reporters, relaying information publicly about a police standoff with a man who had shot three officers in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Journalism, I noted then, was turning from a craft into an act.

That may be tough to swallow for those of us who do this work all day, every day. There is, no doubt, a craft to the unearthing of information, the assembling of words and the placing of events in context with as much fairness as possible. People using their smartphone to record video of a fire or riot likely don’t have any of those skills at hand.

But media figures who are also advocates for a point of view utilize those skills, too. Take Glenn Greenwald, the blogger/writer who reported on Snowden’s leaks for The Guardian at the same time as the traditional journalists at The Washington Post. Greenwald’s perspective and history of advocacy don’t invalidate his journalism work, but they do require readers to come to his reporting with a knowledge of that history, letting them judge for themselves if his work is fair and accurate enough to be trusted.

That’s why I think any talk of a shield law for journalists needs to center on the work done, not the job title. If the point of a shield law is to keep the public as informed as possible by protecting journalists from prosecution for keeping their sources secret, it makes sense to extend that privilege to people practicing journalism, who otherwise might not be considered members of the club.

Debate over these issues has gotten heated, with critics assailing NBC’s David Gregory and The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin for suggesting in various ways that Greenwald should or could be arrested for his work (Sorkin has since apologized for saying on CNBC that he would “almost arrest” Greenwald; he also called him a journalist).

In a piece titled “Meet the ‘Journalists Against Journalism’ club,” Salon columnist David Sirota criticized Gregory, Sorkin and others as “a group of reporters and pundits who are outraged that whistle-blowers and news organizations are colluding to expose illegal government surveillance.”

Sirota also slammed The Washington Post’s editorial board for suggesting the Obama administration cut a deal with Snowden which forgoes prosecution to get him back to America and stop the leaks that the newspaper’s own journalists have helped reveal to the world. Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editorial-page editor, said in an email to Adweek that he saw no conflict between noting the journalistic usefulness of Snowden’s early leaks and urging the government to stop leaks that could harm legal anti-terrorism efforts.

At issue is the question of whether some of the country’s top journalists have become part of a chummy club that supports government power rather than challenging it. Focusing on journalism as an act helps defuse that argument, too: if anyone can benefit from the protections of reporting on whistle-blowers, there is less power in being among the chosen.

Still, Snowden’s efforts to avoid prosecution remind me of a conversation I once had with a civil-rights activist at the Martin Luther King Center who said followers of Dr. King’s non-violent protest strategy saw accepting arrest and prosecution as an important part of their movement.

Accepting such punishment not only showed the public that protesters were largely law-abiding, but also offered a chance to show how unfair such laws could be through court challenges and publicity.

It’s a good reminder that, as much as journalists want access to those with important information and valuable as whistle-blowing can be, sometimes those who practice civil disobedience by leaking to us must also face the consequences of breaking the law.

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  • Jonathan Bernstein

    Nate, you could be right.

  • NateBowman


    It is exactly because you feel you don’t need hard evidence to speculate that I take exception to your point of view.

    Speculationis just that and so does not need to be “balanced” with an option for which there actually is evidence. While thanking you for your service, I do not believe that it gives you license to promote speculation.

    The criterion for your disqualifying Mr. Snowden from the category of
    whistle blower appears jn no definition I have been able to find,
    including the government’s. Thus, I respectfully suggest that you are
    redefining the term to exclude Mr. Snowden. And the fact that many more in media and government subscribe to the same redefinition does not make it any more true or appropriate.

    I actually can not think of a single person that has disclosed embarrassing revelations about those in power that has been embraced by them. On the contrary, every single whistle blower in recent memory has been demonized and persecuted by those in power. Thus, I do not blame Mr. Snowden for his course of

    And, for the record, neither does Daniel Ellsberg, who does fit into your re-definition.

    Considering the violation of the prerogatives of a head of state inflicted on Mr. Morales by European countries, I also do not blame Mr. Snowden from landing in the countries he did.

    And, I see no connection between your experience of being outed with the disclosures by Mr. Snowden. If I am missing something, please let me know. I think we are looking at whole elephants here, not just the trunk or the leg, as you described in the post at your site.

    Finallly, I think it is possible that your career in crisis management is
    dependent on preventing just such disclosures, whether they are by
    “legitimate” whistle blowers or not. And that your point of view is that whether the disclosures are legitimate or not, it is your job to deal with the crisis.

    For me, this possibiiity is supported by something you wrote:
    “Asa crisis management professional, I have helped many clients deal with information leaks by well-meaning whistleblowers, by vengeful
    ex-employees, and even by Internet extortionists. With the exception of whistleblowers that, at one time, had legitimate access to confidential information, the leaks occurred because of inadequate security. The amount of damage incurred depended both on the nature of the information and on the organization’s ability to rapidly engage in damage control.”

    In the same article, you speculated about Julian Asange in the same way that you have about Mr. Snowden, (despite the fact that the Pentagon itself has said that it has not found a single instance of anyone being harmed by the disclosures):

    “At this juncture, I remain disgusted by the irresponsibility of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, because I have little doubt that innocent people have died and more are yet to die as a result of his actions.”

    Thus, I must take your speculation with a grain of salt. I have also not been able to find a retraction from you on that speculation.

    Next, you have written posts over at HuffPo in which you extoll the virtues of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. I submit that your speculation does not live up to that code and that Jack Anderson would have hoped that you would have learned more from your 9-month internship with him.

    You haven’t answered any of the questions from my last comment.

  • Brenda Thompson

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  • Md Sohag

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  • Jonathan Bernstein

    Nate, first, I don’t need hard evidence to speculate based on my personal experience and training, which is what I was doing when I said “it remains possible…”. My speculation is based on my first-hand experience in US Army Military Intelligence (not as much of an oxymoron as most think), in which I was quite thoroughly trained in the recruitment of intelligence “assets.” Snowden has acted quite unlike other whistleblowers, in that he’s not engaging in classic non-violent protest accompanied by accepting the temporary or even permanent consequences. He leaked and ran. So far, to two locations (Hong Kong, which is now China as well, and Russia) whose leadership would like nothing better than to embarrass and discredit the U.S. I absolutely could be wrong about Snowden, but it’s as wrong to assume automatically that he has pure intent as to assume automatically that he doesn’t. I was criticizing the lack of balance in considering those two options.

    If you want to know who can be damaged by leaks, I recommend that you read this:

  • NateBowman

    I would have hoped that having been a reporter for Jack Anderson would have enabled you make make more evidence-based arguments.

    Though it may be true that no all whistleblowers are trying to make our country a better place to live in, what evidence do you have that “It remains possible that Snowden was actually recruited by some country or organziation whose interests are adverse to the U.S.”?

    At least tell us in concrete terms who, besides the American people, can benefit from Mr. Snowden’s disclosures. And, who, in concrete terms, has been damaged. And I don’t mean the unsubstantiated claims of anonymous sources. Reallly, do you think that any terrorists out there don’t assume that their communications are being monitored?

    Or why that country has not granted him asylum.

    Or why, if that was his intent, he isn’t rolling in money now.

    All evidence up until now, including everything Mr. Snowden has said, points to the contrary of what you think is theoretically possible.

  • Jonathan Bernstein

    Good piece, Eric. I think there’s one key omission, however. The
    responsibility of journalists to not automatically assume that a
    whistleblower is an “innocent civilian” trying to make our country a
    better place to live. It remains possible that Snowden was actually
    recruited by some country or organization whose interests are adverse to
    the U.S.. That he is what he’s alleged to be – someone guilty of
    espionage. In the rush to publish, such possibilities are ignored. As a
    former reporter for famed columnist Jack Anderson, and as some who,
    prior to my time with Jack, worked in covert ops for US Army
    Intelligence, I am pained to see the degeneration of simple common sense amongst many in the mainstream media.