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

By       Message Glenn Greenwald     Permalink
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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.

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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.

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.

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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 psycho-analyze 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.

I hadn't intended to use the two-year anniversary to write about these media issues -- until I read the editorial this week from the Los Angeles Times demanding that Snowden return to the U.S. and be prosecuted for his transparency crimes. Isn't it extraordinary that people who want to be regarded as journalists would write an editorial calling for the criminal prosecution of a key source? Principles aside: just on grounds of self-interest, wouldn't you think they'd want to avoid telling future sources that the Los Angeles Times believes leaking is criminal and those who do it belong in prison?

The LAT editors began by acknowledging that Snowden, not President Obama, is "the ultimate author" of the so-called surveillance reform enacted into law. They also acknowledge that "the American people have Snowden to thank for these reforms."

Despite that, they are opposed to a pardon or to clemency. While generously conceding that Snowden has "a strong argument for leniency," they nonetheless insist that "in a society of laws, someone who engages in civil disobedience in a higher cause should be prepared to accept the consequences."

I see this argument often and it's hard to overstate how foul it is. To begin with, if someone really believes that, they should be demanding the imprisonment of every person who ever leaks information deemed "classified," since it's an argument that demands the prosecution of anyone who breaks the law, or at least "consequences" for them. That would mean dragging virtually all of Washington, which leaks constantly and daily, into a criminal court -- to say nothing of their other crimes such as torture. But of course such high-minded media lectures about the "rule of law" are applied only to those who are averse to Washington's halls of power, not to those who run them.

More important, Snowden was "prepared to accept the consequences." When he decided to blow the whistle, he knew that there was a very high risk that he'd end up in a U.S. prison for decades -- we thought that'd be the most likely outcome -- and yet he did it anyway. He knowingly took that risk. And even now, he has given up his family, his home, his career, and his ability to travel freely -- hardly someone free of "consequences."

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Go to The Intercept to read the rest of this article.

 

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Glenn Greenwald is one of three co-founding editors of The Intercept. He is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, No Place (more...)
 

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