Editor’s Corner: The Washington Post Condemns Snowden, Leaves Out Key Details About Its Role

Yesterday, the Washington Post editorial board published “No pardon for Edward Snowden,” arguing that the former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower should return the United States, that he should stand trial for his actions, and that President Obama should choose against pardoning him.

The view itself is fair. Snowden’s 2013 leaks have long been a subject of tremendous controversy. And it’s hard to make a fair evaluation of Snowden’s character – he exposed massive overreaches of government power, but in doing so, could have endangered national security.

It’s a tough issue.

But, as one of two main outlets tasked with acting as curators, mediators, and publishers of Snowden’s documents, the Post is no third-party onlooker. Along with the Guardian’s national security reporter Ewen MacAskill and columnist Glenn Greenwald, the Post’s Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman published countless stories that earned the Post, along with the Guardian, a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service – arguably the single most prestigious and venerated award in journalism.

Photo Credit: Freedom of the Press Foundation

Edward Snowden in 2014. Photo Credit: Freedom of the Press Foundation

The Post was not complicit or passive in the dissemination of Snowden’s documents; in fact, they were active.

The editorial is organized into two parts. In the first, the board concedes that Snowden’s exposure of mass government metadata aggregation was a crime justified because the collection program “was a stretch, if not an outright violation, of federal surveillance law, and posed risks to privacy.” The authors cite the government cessation of record collection as “corrective legislation,” writing, “it’s fair to say we owe these necessary reforms to Mr. Snowden.”

Here, the editorial board acknowledges the Post’s role in the leaks:

Specifically, he made the documents public through journalists, including reporters working for The Post, enabling the American public to learn for the first time that the NSA was collecting domestic telephone “metadata” — information about the time of a call and the parties to it, but not its content — en masse with no case-by-case court approval.

In the second part, the editorial claims that Snowden erred in exposing the “overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, [which] was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy.” The editorial continues:

No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?

But nowhere in this second part does it mention that the Post both chose to publish the information from Snowden and submitted the articles about it for Pulitzer consideration.

In his letter to the Pulitzer committee, executive editor Marty Baron even cites the Post’s breakthroughs with regard to PRISM:

For six months, The Post has been on the leading edge of reporting on the Snowden documents. It began by becoming the first news outlet to disclose PRISM, a massive program to vacuum up e-mails, documents and other electronic records from the largest U.S. Internet companies.

Greenwald, who now runs the Intercept – a national security and privacy watchdog and an extension of Greenwald’s Snowden reportage – was livid. Greenwald took to his soapbox, in an article titled “WashPost Makes History: First Paper to Call for Prosecution of Its Own Source (After Accepting Pulitzer),” saying:

If the Post Editorial Page editors really believe that PRISM was a totally legitimate program and that no public interest was served by its exposure, shouldn’t they be attacking their own paper’s news editors for having chosen to make it public, apologizing to the public for harming their security, and agitating for a return of the Pulitzer? If the Post Editorial Page editors had any intellectual honesty at all, this is what they would be doing — accepting institutional responsibility for what they apparently regard as a grievous error that endangered the public — rather than pretending that it was all the doing of their source as a means of advocating for his criminal prosecution.

Greenwald makes a good point. While the former Guardian columnist has made a name and a living off this kind of writing, and while the article’s title is a tad sensational, he brings up an interesting point about institutional accountability and self-awareness.

Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” shows Snowden as extremely thoughtful in the process of his leak. Instead of dumping government documents onto a Wiki site like Julian Assange did, Snowden chose members of the media as curators and intermediaries of the materials. Thus, he is a source, a leaker, and a whistleblower. But, as the documentary portrays, he notably yielded publication control to Greenwald, Poitras, Gellman, and MacAskill as well as a few others.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flikr

Glenn Greenwald in 2012. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flikr

Contrary to Greenwald, I take little issue with the Post’s stance on Snowden. I find it odd and uncharacteristic for the Post to condemn their most significant source since Watergate’s Deepthroat, but the move is well within their rights. It’s odd, but I firmly believe that times change, and a progressive – meaning, ever-adapting – outlook is important for a forward-looking legacy newspaper.

It is important to note that the editorial board is not representative of Baron or his newsroom – those who published, informed the public, nominated themselves for the Pulitzer and won.

The editorial board describes its work as such: “Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the editorial board.” While its writing may not represent the newsroom, the editorial board represents the Post as an institution. That means it represents the Post’s legacy – good and bad – and the board has a primary responsibility, of course, to its readers and to the public.

But, the editorial failed to contextualize the Post’s role in the NSA leaks. The only mention of its involvement came in the section concerning the metadata collection – the part the editorial board agreed with. As  Greenwald points out, the Post published and won a Pulitzer for the very work they are criticizing. And they fail to take any responsibility for publication.

The Post’s editors and reporters were responsible for what to publish and what to withhold. This is called editorial discretion, and it is a primary way in which journalists serve the public. Snowden clearly knew and appreciated this role, and asked Greenwald, Poitras, Gellman, and MacAskill to exercise their editorial discretion on behalf of himself for the benefit of the American public.

The Post wants to see Snowden come home, face charges, and stand trial by a jury of his peers. That is a perfectly reasonable stance. But, since Snowden trusted the Post with his information, its destiny is forever intertwined with his. Each has a role in the leak of highly-sensitive, confidential government information. And now, each needs to own up to that in its own way.

Snowden is currently unwilling to stand trial for his actions. And, on Saturday, so was the Post.

Editor’s Corner is an column written by MediaFile’s editor-in-chief Scott Nover. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the views of MediaFile or its staff. Read the previous Editor’s Corner here.

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