Imagine if the Sunday morning talk shows had existed in 1776.
Surely, they would have welcomed the most widely-read and provocative journalist of that historic year.
Perhaps the hosts would have asked Tom Paine if he felt that, by penning articles calling out the hypocrisy of colonial officials – and incendiary pamphlets such as “Common Sense” – he was “aiding and abetting” the revolutionaries that King George III imagined to be “traitors.”
An intimidating question, to be sure.
Too intimidating, determined the founders of the American experiment.
After Paine’s compatriots prevailed in their revolutionary endeavor, they wrote into the Bill of Rights a protection of the ability of a free press to speak truth to power, to call out and challenge the machinations of those in government.
Unfortunately, this history is sometimes lost on contemporary Washington.
So it was that, when Glenn Greenwald appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to discuss his reporting on leaks detailing National Security Agency programs that monitor phone calls and digital communications, he was asked whether he was the bad guy.
NBC's David Gregory initially asked Greenwald to discuss the whereabouts of Edward Snowden, a source of the leaks. Greenwald recounted the reported details of Snowden's transit from Hong Kong and spoke at length about his own reporting on the NSA and violations of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. He returned, repeatedly, to the fundamental issues that are at stake, arguing that Snowden "learned of wrongdoing and exposed it so we could have a democratic debate about the spying system, do we really want to put people like that in prison for life when all they’re doing is telling us as citizens what our political officials are doing in the dark."
Then Gregory asked: "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"
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Greenwald countered with a suggestion that Gregory had embraced a theory – advanced by the Department of Justice in its investigation of Fox correspondent James Rosen – that journalists who report on leaks might be considered co-conspirators with those who reveal classified information.
"I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in anyway," argued Greenwald, who worked as a constitutional lawyer before he began writing about threats to essential liberties. "The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the-- the e-mails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory that you just embraced, being a co-conspirator with felony-- in felonies for working with sources. If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal, and it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. That’s why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said investigative reporting has come to a standstill, her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced"
Gregory backed off, saying: "That question has been raised by lawmakers as well. I'm not embracing anything, but, obviously, I take your point."
At the same time, however, Gregory suggested that "the question of who is a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you are doing."
By any reasonable measure, Greenwald is a journalist. While most of his work in the United States has been online, he is associated with Britain’s venerable Guardian newspaper. Yet, even if he had no such association, even if he was a freelance blogger who had not published widely-hailed books on civil liberties, Greenwald would qualify for the protections afforded by the First Amendment. He is, after all, an American writer following stories about what the U.S. government does in our name but without our informed consent. That’s a classic journalistic endeavor, as is protecting a source.
Gregory is also a journalist. He can and should ask probing questions. He should stir things up, even if that upsets or provokes guests -- including Greenwald. What was problematic was the approach, which seemed to go at the task backwards. Instead of providing context – by noting that lawmakers had been griping about Greenwald, or even by referencing the Department of Justice inquiry that targeted Rosen – Gregory simply popped the “aiding and abetting” question.
Only when Greenwald challenged him did the host respond with context.
That’s troubling because we are at a stage where contemporary and historical context are desperately needed. There is too little understanding today that the freedom of the press protection outlined in the First Amendment is not a privilege provided to reporters, it is a tool established by the founders so that citizens would have access to the information they need to be their own governors.
Criminalizing investigative reporting may undermine and intimidate journalism, but it is even more devastating to democracy. Thomas Jefferson got it right when explained to John Jay that: "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it."
Jefferson’s friend and comrade, Tom Paine argued similarly that citizens must be informed in order to be free. “A nation under a well regulated government, should permit none to remain uninstructed,” he observed in The Rights of Man. “It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support.”
Jefferson, Paine and their contemporaries often griped about the newspapers of their day. But they recognized, correctly, that the chains of ignorance had to be broken. They supported a free and freewheeling press as an underpinning of democracy in their day. As we should in ours.