When whistle blowers and media unite to expose corruption, American opinion is split
“A grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” That’s how Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker described Edward Snowden in 2013, shortly after the former contractor to the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked to the public information about an NSA global surveillance program. These leaks were then published, and on April 14, 2014 The Washington Post and The Guardian US won the Public Service Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the scandal.
Telling the truth
It may seem ludicrous for the Nobel prize of journalism to be awarded for the coverage of a “grandiose narcissist,” however, it actually makes perfect sense. The award recognizes fearless newspapers willing to do their job and dig for the truth. “Narcissist” that he may be, Snowden helped to expose major corruption, and the news was what gave him the method to do that, keeping the public informed. That’s why awarding controversial reporting is hardly new.
The Washington Post won that same Pulitzer in 1973 for Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s reporting on the Watergate scandal, which culminated in the resignation of President Nixon. Their Source? Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, code-named “Deep Throat.”
The year before that, in 1972, The New York Times won the Public Service Pulitzer as well, for their reporting on Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government lies about the Vietnam War. The only major reporting scandal in the past 50 years not represented in these ranks is The New York Times’ coverage of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
When published, all of these articles were greeted with rage, controversy and general upset, because of their connection to sources often viewed as “traitorous” for revealing secrets. However, they also won awards and global acclaim. News that exposes powerful lies is often uncomfortable, and the knee-jerk reaction of anger at the shattered calm of ignorance is common. Of course, the strongest negative reactions come from the people exposed, which in each of these cases was the US government.
The government is one of the most difficult opponents for a news organization when releasing sensitive information, especially information obtained through questionable methods. Because after the information is released, it can’t be taken back. And when it’s The New York Times releasing said information, the source is given instant credibility, and it is usually too late for the government to stop the news. This sense of helplessness is a factor to the anger that these articles receive.
When Ellsberg helped the Times in 1971, by providing the Pentagon Papers, both man and newspaper were branded traitors by the government and some of America’s people. When The Times first tried to publish the accounts, which a latter 1996 Times article described as having “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress,” President Nixon claimed executive authority to force The Times to suspend publication. In order to publish the papers, which showed that the US had enlarged their involvement in Vietnam through bombing Cambodia and Laos, raiding the coast of North Vietnam and increasing Marine Corps attacks (none of which was ever told to the people), The Times had to go to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said that in order “to exercise prior restraint, the Government must show sufficient evidence that the publication would cause a ‘grave and irreparable’ danger,” for The Times, and The Washington Post, to be able to publish the papers.
The nation’s reaction to the published papers was that of fury as the truth had been withheld from them. The government, which couldn’t touch the newspapers protected by the Court ruling, did swiftly arrest Ellsberg on charges of conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. These charges weren’t lifted until it was revealed that the White House had attempted, through illegal efforts, to discredit Ellsberg.
The Watergate Scandal
After this came another major news revelation, the Watergate scandal as told through reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and newspaper The Washington Post, the same paper receiving accolades for the Snowden piece. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, after the Watergate break in and bugging was exposed, the government was in no position to go after either the source of the information or the paper. Nixon resigned, Ellsberg’s charges were dropped and the dedication of the news to seeking truth was proven.
Proof that the news does not abide in comfortable ignorance was also found in the past few years with the coverage of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange’s scandal breaking and incredibly controversial brain child. Although lacking a Pulitzer, the breaking news WikiLeaks released was covered in-depth by newspapers in America, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, and around the world in major papers like Germany’s Der Spiegel.
The most controversial of these leaks, in the US, were on US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. These publications published the proof of illicit activities, including video footage in April 2010 of a July 12, 2007, Baghdad airstrike in which civilians are killed, (a video now known as the Collateral Murder video). In July 2010 the stories published were about the Afghan War Diary, a collection of more than 76,900 previously unavailable documents about the Afghanistan War. And in October of that same year the “Iraq War Logs” were published on the site, a move Assange coordinated with many major news organizations, including the Times and Der Spiegel.
In November of that same year, WikiLeaks again collaborated with the news to release U.S. State Department diplomatic “cables” in redacted format. The leaked cables, according to a White House statement at that time, “put at risk [American] diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government.” The question was then raised, why would US newspapers publish, and give credibility to the documents?
To explain, when the documents were released in 2010 the Times published an editorial called “A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish Diplomatic Documents,” where they established that, “The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”
The precedent established in the New York Times vs. USA during the Pentagon Paper affairs kept the US government from prosecuting either the news or Assange. This is because after almost three years of deliberation, in 2013 The Washington Post reported that, “The Justice Department has all but concluded it will not bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified documents because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists.”
How to receive a Pulitzer
Wikileaks and the stories went on, and continue, to win many awards for exposing corruption and spreading the truth. But why not a Pulitzer?
The reason for that has two layers. For one, only American news organizations can win a Pulitzer, thus eliminating Assange’s other main collaborations, Der Spiegel, The Guardian UK, and a few others. Most importantly, however, according to Forbes, The Times never submitted their Wikileaks stories for judging. The Times itself refused to comment on the issue, but the organization has butted heads with Assange in the past. In December 2010, the executive editor of The Times Bill Keller told an audience at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, “I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.”
Despite these personal feelings, however, the Times never shirked publishing the controversial news that Wikileaks released. And neither did newspapers around the world, because of the recognized fundamental requirement to report the truth to the world.
This was proven again in 2013 when papers around the world worked with ‘traitor’, ‘dissident’, and ‘whistleblower’ Edward Snowden, a former government contractor, to release documents exposing the NSA’s global surveillance programs. It was Pulitzer prize-winning The Guardian US, and The Guardian UK who first broke the story June 5, and The Post followed the next day along with others.
However, The Guardian and The Post continued to be the first to report on developments as the revelations from Snowden continued, which is why they were the Pulitzer winners. Unlike Assange, the US government could and did go after Snowden on criminal charges of espionage forcing him to seek asylum, which he found in Russia where he has been stuck since June.
The US government has branded Snowden a traitor. American citizens’ opinion is split. A January 2014 survey conducted by Pew Research and USA Today said 45 percent said Snowden’s leaks “served the public interest” and 43 percent said they “harmed the public interest.”
However Snowden has strong defenders, including Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers. “Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong,” Ellsberg said, “I agree wholeheartedly.” The Post and The Guardian also received support from around the world. The Post’s decision to publish the material because of “the usefulness of the information that has come out and the debate it provoked… This is a debate the administration and Congress should have encouraged and enabled.”
The news is a powerful tool. Without it corruption would remain hidden, and the truth would remain murky, at best. Awarding a Public Service Pulitzer for the Snowden stories should be the obvious choice, not a controversial one. All of these floods of knowledge: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, WikiLeaks and the NSA leaks should be celebrated. Even when the truth is hard to swallow, it’s still the truth. The duty of the news is to report it, and the duty of the people is to listen.