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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