A disgruntled loner with access to military secrets comes across documents that pull back the veil on government actions in a lost war and decides for a variety of reasons, some noble and some personal, to share them with the world.
That was Daniel Ellsberg in 1969, and for his efforts, which became the publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was investigated and indicted, but eventually he was hailed as a hero and enshrined in the journalistic canon.
Today that role has been taken up by Pfc. Bradley E. Manning (who now wants to be known as Chelsea) and Edward J. Snowden. Their chances of being widely declared heroes aren’t nearly as great: Private Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison last week, and Mr. Snowden, who revealed documents showing the extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency, is still hiding in Russia beyond the reach of the United States government.
Perhaps they got what’s coming to them. They knew, or should have known, the risks of revealing information entrusted to them, and decided to proceed. Like almost all whistle-blowers, they are difficult people with complicated motives.
"If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pulitzer Prizes and Peabodies they expected. Same with the 2010 WikiLeaks video of the Apache helicopter attack."
So, too, are the journalists who aid them. It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.
What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He 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?”
Jeffrey Toobin, who works for both CNN and The New Yorker, called Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison.” This week, he called David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under antiterror laws, the equivalent of a “drug mule.”
Mr. Assange has also come under withering criticism, including in the pages of The New York Times, which accused him, among other things, of not smelling very nice as we cooperated with WikiLeaks in publishing reams of articles in July 2010 based on the revelations from Private Manning.
This week, Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time, wrote on Twitter: “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” (He later apologized, perhaps reasoning that salivating over the killing of anyone was in poor taste.)
What have Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald done to inspire such rancor from other journalists? Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
In the instance of the stories based on the purloined confidential documents in the Manning and Snowden leaks, we learned what our country has been doing in our name, whether it is in war zones or in digital realms.
Mr. Toobin agrees that an important debate has been joined, but says no story, no matter how big, justifies journalists’ abetting illegal acts, saying, “Journalists are not above the law.”
“The Jane Mayers, Sy Hershes and Walter Pincuses have all done superb work for decades without the rampant lawlessness that was behind these stories,” he said, adding later, “I’ve never heard any of those journalists endorsing the wholesale theft of thousands of classified government records.”
The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.
“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.”
It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom. But they are acting in a more transparent age — they are their own newsrooms in a sense — and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads. (In fact, The Times confirmed on Friday that it would work on a series of articles based on the N.S.A. documents with The Guardian.)
Yes, the argumentative Mr. Greenwald and the often obnoxious Mr. Assange don’t just have opinions, they tend to rub our mainstream noses in them. During the course of their collaboration and coverage of the WikiLeaks investigation, Mr. Assange and Bill Keller, then the executive editor of The Times, traded some rather memorable barbs. (I understand some of the antagonism: I was at a very proper lunch in the English countryside with Mr. Assange and he announced to the table that he thought the primary requirements for being a journalist at The New York Times were the ability to lie and obfuscate. Why thank you, Mr. Assange. Now could you pass the salad, please?)
In a phone interview, Mr. Keller suggested that he “let Julian get under my skin a little more than I should have.” But he said that Mr. Assange should be afforded the protections given to any journalist.
Mr. Keller said the relationship with sources and competitors on coverage was always fraught with peril, but technology has created significant disruption to both the business model and the practice of journalism.
“Stuff that used to happen in a sedate place with a kind of Robert’s Rules of Order have now turned into the World Wrestling Federation, with everybody piling into the ring and throwing punches,” he said. “There has been a tendency for people used to a more decorous world to bristle at the characters who have acquired prominence in this new world.”
The reflex is understandable, but by dwelling on who precisely deserves to be called a journalist and legally protected as such, critics within the press are giving the current administration a justification for their focus on the ethics of disclosure rather than the morality of government behavior.
“I think the people in our business who are suspicious of Glenn Greenwald and critical of David Miranda are not really thinking this through,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of The Guardian. “The governments are conflating journalism with terrorism and using national security to engage in mass surveillance. The implications just in terms of how journalism is practiced are enormous.”
If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pulitzer Prizes and Peabodies they expected. Same with the 2010 WikiLeaks video of the Apache helicopter attack.
Instead, the journalists and organizations who did that work find themselves under attack, not just from a government bent on keeping its secrets, but from friendly fire by fellow journalists. What are we thinking?