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Media Lessons from Snowden Reporting: LA Times Editors Advocate Prosecution of Sources

"Snowden’s whistleblowing has led to many extraordinary revelations," writes Greenwald. "None," however, "is more significant or more revealing than what it highlighted about the function many American journalists actually perform, and how far away that is – universes away – from the way they market their function." (Photo Illustration: Shutterstock)

Two years ago, the first story based on the Snowden archive was published in the Guardian, revealing a program of domestic mass surveillance which, at least in its original form, ended this week. To commemorate that anniversary, Edward Snowden himself reflected in a New York Times Op-Ed on the “power of an informed public” when it comes to the worldwide debate over surveillance and privacy.

But we realized from the start that the debate provoked by these disclosures would be at least as much about journalism as privacy or state secrecy. And that was a debate we not only anticipated but actively sought, one that would examine the role journalism ought to play in a democracy and the proper relationship of journalists to those who wield the greatest political and economic power.

That debate definitely happened, not just in the U.S. but around the world. And it was revealing in all sorts of ways. In fact, of all the revelations over the last two years, one of the most illuminating and stunning – at least for me – has been the reaction of many in the American media to Edward Snowden as a source.


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When it comes to taking the lead in advocating for the criminalization of leaking and demanding the lengthy imprisonment of our source, it hasn’t been the U.S. Government performing that role but rather – just as was the case for WikiLeaks disclosures – those who call themselves “journalists.” Just think about what an amazing feat of propaganda that is, one of which most governments could only dream: let’s try to get journalists themselves to take the lead in demonizing whistleblowers and arguing that sources should be imprisoned! As much of an authoritarian pipe dream as that may seem to be, that is exactly what happened during the Snowden debate. As Digby put it yesterday:

It remains to be seen if more members of the mainstream press will take its obligations seriously in the future. When the Snowden revelations came to light two years ago it was a very revealing moment. Let’s just say that we got a good look at people’s instincts. I know I’ll never forget what I saw.

So many journalists were furious about the revelations, and were demanding prosecution for it, that there should have been a club created called Journalists Against Transparency or Journalists for State Secrecy and it would have been highly populated. They weren’t even embarrassed about it. There was no pretense, no notion that those who want to be regarded as “journalists” should at least pretend to favor transparency, disclosures, and sources. They were unabashed about their mentality that so identifies with and is subservient to the National Security State that they view controversies exactly the same way as those officials: someone who reveals information that the state has deemed should be secret belongs in prison – at least when those revelations reflect poorly on top U.S. officials.

The reaction of American journalists was not monolithic. Large numbers of them expressed support for the revelations and for Snowden himself. Two of the most influential papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, themselves published Snowden documents (including, ironically, most of the stories which Snowden critics typically cite as ones that should not have been published). In the wake of a court ruling finding the domestic mass surveillance program likely unconstitutional, the New York Times editorial page argued that Snowden should be given clemency. Journalists awarded the Snowden-based reporting the Pulitzer, the Polk, and most other journalism awards. So there was plenty of journalistic support for the disclosures, for journalism. Many have recently come around for the first time to advocating that Snowden should not face prosecution.

But huge numbers of them went on the warpath against transparency. The Democrats’ favorite “legal analyst,” Jeffrey Toobin, repeatedly took to the airwaves of CNN and the pages of the New Yorker to vilify Snowden. The NSA whistleblower was so repeatedly and viciously maligned by MSNBC hosts such as Melissa Harris-Perry, Ed Schultz, Joy Ann Reid, and Lawrence O’Donnell that one would have thought he had desecrated an Obama shrine (had Snowden leaked during a GOP presidency, of course, MSNBC personalities would have erected a life-sized statue of him outside of 30 Rock). People like Bob Schieffer and David Brooks, within days of learning his name, purported to psychoanalyze him in the most banal yet demeaning ways. And national security journalists frozen out of the story continuously tried to insinuate themselves by speaking up in favor of state secrecy and arguing that Snowden should be imprisoned.

Read the full article at The Intercept.

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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