"Why shouldn’t you, Mr Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"
The question was directed at Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who broke the story of NSA surveillance using material provided by on-the-lam leaker Edward Snowden. The person grilling Greenwald wasn’t a government prosecutor or a frustrated member of the intelligence community. It was David Gregory, host of NBC’s Sunday morning political talk show Meet the Press.
The show, conceived as a regular forum for holding government officials accountable to the media, long ago devolved into a forum for politicians to field softball questions and dole out talking points. So it was a remarkable moment when Gregory found his spine. Less heartening? That he found it not when facing down a powerful politico but rather a fellow member of the fourth estate.
Since the NSA surveillance story broke in June, several members of the media like Gregory have focused fire on journalists and whistleblowers rather than the government programs that Greenwald and reporters for the Washington Post revealed. In doing so, they have sparked a debate about journalists and their role in a democracy. They have also revealed that the relationship between the press and the powerful is often more accommodating than adversarial.
The uproar began when Greenwald and the Washington Post revealed government surveillance programs using information gained from Snowden, who had been working for the NSA since 2009. Americans were appalled to learn that the Obama administration seemingly had access to everything from email to Facebook to phone records. Sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 soared.
In response, president Obama came out in defense of his programs. “You can’t have 100% security and also have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience,” he argued. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” His deputy press secretary Josh Earnest added: “the president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties".
When it comes to that debate, a considerable number of American journalists have come out more strongly for security than for press freedoms. One strategy has been to redefine who qualifies as a journalist. Gregory told Greenwald that “the question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing”. A writer at the Telegraph newspaper excoriated Greenwald for “blurring the line between opinion pieces and straight reporting”.
While this has opened up an intriguing discussion in the US about what journalists do, the attempt to define people like Greenwald as non-journalists has real consequences. Press protections, which are substantial in the United States, don’t cover activists. The media shield laws for which Obama advocated in response to outcry over his surveillance programs, for instance, only cover members of the press.
In a time when media are rapidly changing – when the people breaking news are not just employees of august print publications but bloggers and tweeters – journalists should be pushing for broad definitions of their craft to ensure press protections remain robust and inviolable.
This is particularly important not just because of the swiftly shifting media landscape but because of the expanding powers of the government. In addition to new technologies for surveillance, the Obama administration has developed new legal protections for an extensive security state.
The Obama administration has also aggressively prosecuted anyone who divulges classified information. The Espionage Act, a relic of the World War One era used only three times since the end of that war, has now been invoked seven times in five years by the administration in its pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers.
Given the government’s attempts to lock down information, journalists are forced to pick sides. And many are siding with the administration to protect the national security state. A writer for Salon labelled this group “Journalists Against Journalism”. He listed not only Gregory and New York Times columnist David Brooks, but the editorial page of the Washington Post. The Post joined the “Journalist Against Journalism” ranks when it declared last Tuesday that “the first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr Snowden from leaking information” beyond what he has already shared.
That stance is odd for two reasons. First, the Washington Post itself scored a major scoop based on Snowden’s documents. Also, 40 years ago the Post ran some of the most important leak-based journalism in American history: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of the Watergate break-in and cover-up. For the Post to now be railing against stories built on “stolen” information and leaks shows how deeply implicated major American media have become in protecting the national security state.
Barack Obama was right when he said there should be a debate about the balance between liberty and security. Press freedoms are at the very heart of that discussion. The institutional checks and balances on the security state barely function. A secret court rubber stamps warrant requests. Congressional overseers are often disengaged. When they do pay attention, the intelligence sector has proven quite willing to lie to them.
In such an atmosphere, a free press willing to challenge and chasten the government without fear of recriminations is vital. Journalists like Gregory have a right to disagree with Greenwald. But they also have a responsibility to defend his right to practice journalism.