Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now hiding in Russia from U.S. espionage charges, Thursday chided the media for making too big a deal of him.
“I was very forceful in my first interviews: I am the least important part of the story,” he said on a secure video channel to a packed audience at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
“How does media sell attention? How do they buy attention? How do they get you to watch them? People care about characters, for whatever reason. So they simply would not let me go.”
Four days after the same institute, which was founded by former political strategist David Axelrod, played host to Jon Stewart, it was Snowden’s turn via Moscow, where he’s been living since his 2013 revelations.
Geoffrey Stone, a prominent university law professor who served on a special presidential surveillance review panel selected after Snowden’s revelations, conducted the more than one-hour session.
While the session, which included questions to Snowden from students, largely focused on mass surveillance and the legality of his actions, it briefly touched upon coverage of him.
The press, he said, has tended to favor simplistic constructs. It exhibited a “traitor vs. hero ratings grab” in the U.S., as opposed to other countries that seemed to care more about the essence of the revelations contained in the documents he leaked.
Typical, in his mind, was an interview by then-NBC anchor Brian Williams that included what Snowden labeled an “instant ‘hero vs. traitor’ online poll.
“I was hoping so hard we’d get some other figurehead who wouldn’t have the common criticisms of their character that I do,” said Snowden, alluding to the obvious debate over his actions.
Instead, he argued, the press wasn’t as interested in the underlying issues of mass surveillance as it was in focusing on him.
At the same time, he asserted, “I don’t care how they want to talk about me as long as…they are getting people to talk about what the world is today and what kind of world we want to live in. I don’t care how they do it.”
He did praise the U.S. even while he refuses to return to face trial, reiterating his view that specific act he’s charged with violating makes a proper defense impossible.
“It’s great that in the U.S. we can have those conversations and hopefully don’t have the secret services kicking in the doors and shredding the hard drives of journalists as they did in the United Kingdom and more authoritarian countries,” he said.
During the latter portion of the session, the video went dead, so Snowden was heard, not seen. He concluded with remarks that included, “Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you don’t have anything to say.”
Shortly thereafter, he received rousing applause and the session (for which he was not compensated) ended.