What the Press Should Learn From the “Snowden Effect”

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This essay first appeared in The Nation.


A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Sunday, June 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)
A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Sunday, June 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

Everyone’s familiar with the old zen koan: If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? In a way, the same existential question lies at the heart of our modern news profession: If a big story lands on the front page but nobody else notices, was it really journalism?

Flash back three years to the summer of 2010, when The Washington Post published its breathtakingly detailed, two-years-in-the-making “Top Secret America” project. In it, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin portrayed a vast, metastasizing national security state obsessed with classifying secrets, broadening its power and increasingly reliant on private contractors. The front-page stories ran on three consecutive days in July. But by September, updates to the Post’s specially created “TSA” blog stopped coming. A fourth and final story installment — presciently titled “Monitoring America” — arrived somewhat inexplicably in late December, just days before Christmas. Almost nine months later, Frontline broadcast an hour-long documentary to complement the pair’s reporting, timed to run with the publication of a book about “Top Secret America.” Nevertheless, the White House, Congress and the national security establishment all pretty much shrugged off the whole thing. But it was outstanding journalism. Or was it?

Then there was Reuters, which published last month the second half of a piercing two-part exposé about rampant waste in the Defense Dept. budget. If you missed it, or the first installment, which ran back in July, you weren’t alone. Despite the numerous examples of outrageous conduct unearthed, there’s been no concomitant public debate or calls for a governmental investigation into how much our nation really spends on the military and what we get (or, more to the point, don’t get) for our money. In fact, the Ryan-Murray budget deal that just passed Congress restored almost every DoD dollar cut by the sequester. Still, excellent journalism, right? Right?

My point here is not to diminish the journalism and journalists above as much as it is to offer up those examples as cautionary tales. In-depth accountability journalism doesn’t always make an impact (for reasons I’ll get to later). Which is why the ongoing blowback of the NSA spying revelations leaked by Edward Snowden — the “Snowden effect” — are so remarkable. Whether or not you classify Snowden as a hero or a traitor, or something in between, one can’t deny his actions have sparked a debate about the intersection of national security and individual privacy that we weren’t having six months ago, but should have been. That, in a democracy dependent upon consent of the governed and oversight of their duly elected representatives, can’t help but be a positive development. Likewise, to witness an original author of the Patriot Act, a seminal piece of government overreach if ever there was one, change course and advocate legislation rolling back the NSA’s power is still hard to fathom. And to have predicted, back in June, that by the end of the year, both a federal judge – appointed by George W. Bush, no less — and a White House-appointed review panel would offer a sweeping, excoriating rebuke to the intelligence community status quo would have been laughable.

It is still too soon to say what real, lasting impact on intelligence and privacy policy the “Snowden effect” will have, of course. On matters involving the national security state, it always pays to be skeptical of any promises of broad reform. Judge Richard Leon’s powerful decision on Monday, for example, was self-sabotaged by his choice to immediately stay the ruling and limit its scope to the two plaintiffs who brought the case. (One of whom, Larry Klayman, it should be noted, is a certifiable right-wing conspiracy nut who has advocated for a military coup to overthrow President Obama.) Moreover, while the NSA review panel’s 300-page report was laudably released weeks ahead of schedule — and not as part of a late-Friday-before-Christmas news dump — the timing coincidentally works in favor of a White House looking to quell even more privacy lawsuits and possibly blunt the momentum of the Sensenbrenner-Leahy USA FREEDOM Act. That’s before pointing out that the panel’s 46 recommendations are just that, recommendations, and that Obama has already rejected one of the report’s most important proposals.

However, the Snowden revelations and their subsequent publication haven’t just had an impact on issues of privacy and national security. They’ve also occasioned a re-awakening of a debate about the role of journalism (and journalists) in a democracy and its relationship to authority. As the lead reporter whom Snowden has entrusted with his massive trove of stolen secrets, former Guardian columnist/reporter Glenn Greenwald has come to personify this new breed of independent-minded, advocacy journalist. He’s endured some clumsy smear attempts as well as a share of fair criticism of his reporting, but it’s hard to quantify how fully his lightning-rod persona has become fused to the larger discussion of the merits of “objective” versus “advocacy” journalism. On Twitter, as is often the case, these discussions have unfortunately devolved further into competing “teams,” either pro- or anti-Greenwald. Set aside all the hashtag vitriol, though, and you find that the Snowden effect precipitated this bracing debate between Greenwald and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller that every journalist should read and think about, no matter what side you come down on.

To say, as his critics do, Greenwald merely got lucky that Snowden chose him for what might the biggest leak of all time is a mistake, though. Just as it is a mistake for those who might have legitimate critiques of a journalist’s portrayal of intelligence operations to lapse into old-fashioned, insider-y rank-pulling instead of honest engagement. Greenwald’s reputation as someone with an unabashed adversarial approach to covering government no doubt fit the profile Snowden sought for someone who would distill, curate and aggressively report the secrets he’d taken. It was no coincidence, then, that Snowden — and, before him, Pfc. Chelsea Manning — choose to leak everything he had to Greenwald instead of a major U.S. news organization, many of whom have on numerous occasions been too easily talked out of publishing stories by our government.

We’ll never know for sure how, say, the Times or the Post might have handled being the sole guardian of Snowden’s secrets. The enormous size and egregious nature of his revelations might well have led us to the same point we are at today, regardless of whose byline and masthead ran above them. I’m a bit skeptical, though. The multi-faceted, transnational nature of Snowden’s leaks seem to have necessitated exactly the kind of steady stream of multi-platform reports and foreign news partnerships that Greenwald has forged. Would an establishment media company like the Times have been as willing to undertake a similar journalistic outreach and share its exclusive information so as to ensure maximum policy impact?

Color me doubtful. These days, the establishment media all too often adopts an indifferent attitude toward how the public connects with what it publishes, content to merely be conveyors of information rather than providers of context, chroniclers of the powerful instead of champions of the powerless. That no doubt contributes to why the public mistrusts the press so much.

Of course, the not-so dirty little secret about objective journalism is that does have agenda, it just won’t admit to having one honestly and transparently. In fact, the mainstream media advocates on behalf of politics and policies all the time. Most of the time it’s in service of the status quo, but not always. Take again, for example, the Post’s Dana Priest. In 2007, she produced world-class reporting on the horrid conditions for wounded veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Couched as objective, this was in fact advocacy reporting at its best, uncovering wrongdoing, challenging the status quo and shaming our military into fixing a broken system. Though she won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, what made her journalism stand out was that it applied a steady adversarial pressure to get results. In contrast to the intermittent nature of her “Top Secret America” series, Priest published 10 separate stories on Walter Reed over the course of 10 months.

That, to me, is the higher gear that journalism rarely engages but that our democracy demands. It’s also the primary takeaway from the past few months of the “Snowden effect.” That truly free societies depend upon a free press that does more than just finds the facts and tells the stories and calls it a day. They demand a larger commitment from journalists and journalism, a willingness to make the stories matter. To not just make a sound, but to be heard.

Reed Richardson is a former Army officer who holds a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Boston University and a MS from the Columbia University School of Journalism. In addition to his writing for The Nation, Reed’s media criticism has also appeared in Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and in the textbook Media Ethics.
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  • Paul Bogosian

    If the filthiest man in town told you that your house was falling down and he knew what he was talking about, you should listen.

  • NotARedneck

    Among thoughtful intelligent people, he should be considered to be a hero.

    Among neurotic, right wing, criminal trash, he of course is considered the great Satan.

    Of course, the problems of our society today are almost completely the responsibility of the right wing crimional trash and unless we remove their hands of these scum from the levers of power, things will continue to deteriorate quickly.

  • Anonymous

    Your tribalism is part of the problem. Tea Partiers like Rand Paul have been the most vocal about standing up for Snowden, even more than Democrats. The establishment Democrats and Republicans want to keep people like you on tribal political plantations so you’ll never throw off the yoke of the surveillance state. You need to grow up, overcome your tribalism, and make alliances with libertarian-leaning Republicans if you want to save your country.

  • Nick

    Tea Partiers like Rand Paul are highly selective in their libertarianism, agin’ Big Government, but only if you’re not poor, a woman, or LGBT,

  • Nick

    Excellent point. It is most certainly not objective to present alternative points of view when the alternatives have no basis in fact.

  • Geoffrey de Galles

    Thing is about Greenwald, he is a sentient being — unlike ‘most all mainstream journalists who, one way or t’other, have mortgaged their souls and are owned, most often by corporations and their insidious policies. In his areas of specialty and expertise he is uniquely erudite — so much so that, inexorably, all of his interviewers and adversaries are soon enough exposed as wretchedly ignorant by comparison. He is also, unlike all government officials and military spokespersons, consummately literate and a true master of rhetoric — noble, versus base. Indeed, he doesn’t miss a heart-beat and, truth be told, he is, very simply, as a very high-profile individual, one of the best things the USA has going for itself in terms of its international standing, given the fact the nation’s stock overseas has plummeted. But an anomaly — how come that, unlike his sometime collaborator Laura Poitras, the MacArthur Foundation has yet to recognize Greenwald’s genius?

  • Dubyadee

    I actually thought this as well until I read some counterpoint reporting. Unfortunately, there’s not much of it and that is playing into GG’s persona as defender of the truth.

    As someone who largely believes that Snowden and Greenwald are doing a great service for the US and the world, I still think it is important to point out that Greenwald admittedly presents the story in a way that pushes his agenda. He minimizes or leaves out important exculpatory facts whenever he can get it away with it. When he does offer a counterpoint, it is generally a straw man he knows he can easily cut down.

    It’s worth noting that Greenwald has been able to create this narrative in a space where most who would disagree with him aren’t willing or able to debate openly because they are honoring commitments about what information they will not share.

  • wondering

    “He’s endured some clumsy
    smear attempts as well as a share of fair criticism of his reporting”

    In December 2013 Reed Richardson should not be citing ‘The Daily Banter’s’ article “Snowden and Greenwald Beginning to Self-Destruct” as “fair criticism’ of Greenwald’s reporting. At the time Greenwald clearly reported the evidence just as it appeared (i.e. ‘the NSA is collecting directly from servers of internet giants’ along with the denial of various of those internet giants) and later revelations have borne the truth of that out. We now know that both claims were true: the servers were directly accessed by the NSA without the knowledge of the ‘internet giants’. As the Washington Post documents in October 2013:

    “The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials….The NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR …. copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.”

    The WaPo article also documents the outrage of Google and Yahoo officials upon
    finding out about this in the newspaper’s revelations.

    See http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-infiltrates-links-to-yahoo-google-data-centers-worldwide-snowden-documents-say/2013/10/30/e51d661e-4166-11e3-8b74-d89d714ca4dd_story.html

    And the same goes for the surmising on many other subjects passing as factual evidence by the authors of that article that supposedly ‘raise red flags’ on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s credibility.

    While Richardson’s article raises some worthy observations on what constitutes effective journalism, his citation of the Daily Banter’s article shows him falling victim to the false equivalencies pointed out in Neil Kitson’s comment below. It is yet another ‘clumsy attempt’ at ‘fair and objective’ so-called balanced reporting which is neither, as it does not investigate the truth of the claims it reports and thus leaves a false impression in the reader’s mind.

  • wondering

    “He’s endured some clumsy smear attempts as well as a share of fair criticism of his reporting”

    In December 2013 Reed Richardson should not be citing ‘The Daily Banter’s’ article “Snowden and Greenwald Beginning to Self-Destruct” as “fair criticism’ of Greenwald’s reporting. There the authors allege – without proof but much “concern”- “significant issues with his reporting”. Yet at the time Greenwald clearly reported the evidence just as it appeared (i.e. ‘the NSA is collecting directly from servers of internet giants’ along with the denial of various of those internet giants) and later revelations have borne the truth of that out. We now know that both of Greenwald’s statements were true: the servers were directly accessed by the NSA without the knowledge of the ‘internet giants’. As the Washington Post documents in October 2013:

    “The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials….The NSA’s principal tool to exploit the data links is a project called MUSCULAR …. copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.”

    The WaPo article also documents the outrage of Google and Yahoo officials upon finding out about this in the newspaper’s revelations.

    See http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-infiltrates-links-to-yahoo-google-data-centers-worldwide-snowden-documents-say/2013/10/30/e51d661e-4166-11e3-8b74-d89d714ca4dd_story.html

    And the same goes for the surmising on many other subjects passing as factual evidence by the authors of that article that supposedly ‘raise red flags’ on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s credibility.

    While Richardson’s article makes some very worthy observations on what constitutes effective journalism, his citation of the Daily Banter’s article shows him falling victim to the false equivalencies pointed out in Neil Kitson’s comment below. It is yet another ‘clumsy attempt’ at ‘fair and objective’ so-called balanced reporting which is neither, as it does not investigate the truth of the claims it reports and thus leaves a false impression in the reader’s mind.

  • Neil Kitson

    I think I understand what you mean, but could you present some specific examples of how Greenwald “minimizes or leaves out important exculpatory facts whenever he can get it away with it”? And, I’d be interested to know what you think his “agenda” is?

    As for “honoring commitments”, the Oath of Enlistment and the Congressional Oath of Office are both sworn to protect and defend the American Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. On the basis of available evidence, there’s a good case to be made that the NSA is a domestic enemy of the Bill of Rights. There’s no reason the NSA and its acolytes can’t debate that proposition in public, unless it’s Mike Rogers of course, a guy who can’t distinguish between facts and what he wants to be facts.

  • Anonymous

    Zen koan is a style used by George Berkeley and many others.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Who gives a crap about Greenwald’s agenda? The Post and the Times are not the center of the universe for anything including journalism. What really matters here, all you intellectual blowhards, is the fact that our nation is responsible for the largest breach of human rights since Hitler to not only those of us in this nation, but seemingly everyone on the planet, and you’re squabbling about who’s who of reporters. The real action, questioning, oversight, punishment, and reform should be in congress, and perhaps the World Court thanks to the knowledge given to us by a very few brave individuals.
    Other than the beginnings of the so called “Patriot Act”, we were given huge clues in San Francisco years ago as to the depth of this breach and no one especially in government, other than the likes of a senator from Podunk Oregon (Mr. Wyden) and the reporters at the time, tried in vain to get the public’s and congress’s attention.
    I’m thankful that our constitution gives journalists the freedoms to investigate and report stories such as these so that we can not only keep the irresponsible in check, but to put in place rules and objective oversight to keep this from happening. And yes, to your chagrin, you need to scream and yell at us when you are under attack because it’s a sad fact more of our citizens are more concerned with who is the top college or professional sports team of the week than what’s happening in the rest of the world.
    Anytime a government finds it necessary to keep so many secrets from the press and the public, you know rights will be violated and unfortunately, or fortunately, it is the press that is the most powerful in informing us what is happening with our own government. For that I thank most of you (You’ll forgive me for not including the likes of FOX News or their spawn).
    Now let’s get to the work at hand in cleaning up this mess. (_: FBI

  • RevPhil Manke

    And… we should also listen to those who see only form and their will to judge it?

  • Ben

    You got it Arm.And yes this country has a lot of block heads who’s God is sports.

  • Anonymous

    Most newspares would not have touched this with a barge pole!

  • Anonymous

    Since Rand Paul opposes the War on Drugs, your tribal line about white males is exposed as a lie. Free your mind, and stop hating. That is our nation’s only hope.

  • Chris Jonsson

    Could we please move beyond invoking Hitler’s name when trying to make a point?

  • Nick

    I spoke from personal experience. That Rand Paul opposes the War on Drugs does not invalidate my statement, as Rand Paul is only one of thousands.

    My mind is free. I don’t hate. That you think I do says much to me, none of it very complimentary to you.

  • Arm of Keaau

    The point being made is that this is as egregious as the deeds of Hitler and not invoking the memory of the powerful who abuse these rights is like poking your head in the sand and pretending hateful, criminal behavior does not exist. Never forget and do everything you can to ensure it never happens again. (_:

  • Chris Jonsson

    How about being more creative to express the same idea. So many nincompoops use Hitler as a horror. that it has been overused and not as powerful anymore as it should be. No denying that Hitler was the worst of the worst, but when we have Sarah Palin using Hitler in every other description of a liberal Democrat, ” Hitler” looses its effectiveness. Give it a rest.

  • Arm of Keaau

    I beg to differ in that just because someone of Palin’s ilk misuses the reference, the original and successive breach’s of rights are egregious. It will never be less horrendous. (_:

  • Chris Jonsson

    OK. You’ve got me there. It will never the less be horrendous.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Your point is well taken. Happy holidays! (_:

  • Card Counter

    You’re thinking of “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” It’s similar but different.