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

Of all the revelations over the last two years, one of the most illuminating has been the reaction of American journalists to Edward Snowden as a source.

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.

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 them, 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 journalists 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.

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.”

But that doesn’t mean he has to meekly crawl to American authorities with his wrists extended and politely ask to be put in a cage for 30 years, almost certainly in some inhumane level of penal oppression typically reserved for Muslims and those accused of national security crimes. The idea that anyone who breaks an unjust law has a moral obligation to submit to an unjust penal state and accept lengthy imprisonment is noxious and authoritarian.

Without making any comparisons but instead just to illustrate the principle involved: Anyone decent regards Nelson Mandela as a heroic moral actor, but he didn’t submissively turn himself into the South African government in order to be imprisoned. Instead, he avoided capture and prison for as long as he could by evading arrest and remaining a fugitive (and was captured only when the CIA, which regarded him as a “terrorist,” helped its apartheid allies find and apprehend him).

Third, anyone who has even casually watched the post-9/11 American judicial system knows what an absurdity it is to claim that Snowden would receive a fair trial. He’s barred under the Espionage Act even from arguing that his leaks were justified; he wouldn’t be permitted to utter a word about that. The American judiciary has been almost uniformly subservient to the U.S. government in national security prosecutions. And the series of laws that has been enacted in the name of terrorism almost guarantee conviction in such cases. That’s why, early on, Daniel Ellsberg wrote an op-ed arguing that Snowden absolutely did the right thing in leaving the U.S.:

Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago. . . .

Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong. I agree wholeheartedly. . . . I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like [Chelsea] Manning, incommunicado.

He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during [her] three years of imprisonment before [her] trial began recently. . . . Nothing worthwhile would be served, in my opinion, by Snowden voluntarily surrendering to U.S. authorities given the current state of the law.

Fourth, and most revealing, the LA Times itself constantly publishes illegal leaks, though the ones it publishes usually come from top government officials. Indeed, for years it employed a national security report, Ken Dilanian, who specializes in stenographically disseminating the pro-government claims that government officials want him to convey (and, totally unsurprisingly, Dilanian himself became one of the leading journalistic opponents of the Snowden disclosures, and, now with AP, this week was bemoaning that Snowden made Americans aware of so much about what their government has been doing to the Internet).

Do you think the LA Times editors would ever demand the imprisonment of high-level D.C. leakers by sanctimoniously arguing that “in a society of laws, someone who engages in civil disobedience in a higher cause should be prepared to accept the consequences”? Have the LA Times editors called for the criminal prosecution of Leon Panetta, and John Brennan, and the endless number of senior officials who leak not (as Snowden did) to inform the public but in order to propagandize them?

Of course not, and therein lies the key media lesson from all of this. These journalists are literally agents of political power. Just as countless journalists demanded Snowden’s imprisonment while never uttering the same about James Clapper or David Petraeus, the LA Times editors want Snowden imprisoned, but not the leakers whose leaks make the U.S. government look good, much of which gets laundered in that particular paper. Manifestly, the LAT editors don’t believe in the rule of law or the need to punish leaks or any other pretty, high-minded concepts they’re invoking here; they believe in the need to punish those whose leaks embarrass or are adverse to political power: the very function journalists love to claim they themselves perform.

The other rationale cited by the LA Times editors for Snowden’s imprisonment is that “Snowden didn’t limit his disclosures to information about violations of Americans’ privacy,” but rather “divulged other sensitive information about traditional foreign intelligence activities.”

The LA Times editors apparently believe that only the privacy of Americans, but not the 95 percent of the planet called “non-Americans,” is valuable and newsworthy. Therefore, any disclosures that don’t directly affect violations of the rights of Americans is immoral and criminal and deserves prison time. Spying on entire populations in Europe, or Latin America, or Asia? On foreign companies? On human rights organizations and climate change conferences? Not only is that valid in the eyes of the LA Times editors, but it should be criminal even to reveal it. Is any work needed to explain why this mentality is jingoistic and myopic in the extreme, let alone the very opposite of journalism?

What a bizarre notion for a journalist to adopt the view that only the rights of Americans matter. Does that mean the LA Times editors favor the imprisonment of those who exposed the Abu Grahib abuses, since none of those detainees were American? Or the CIA black sites that only abused irrelevant non-Americans? Should leaks of classified information about civilian deaths by drones be punished with imprisonment, since none of the victims are sacred Americans but rather part of the irrelevant, rights-free group called non-Americans?

Yes, part of Snowden’s disclosures were about mass surveillance aimed at other populations because the Internet is global (there is no such thing as the American Internet) and because mass surveillance is inherently wrong, or at least certainly newsworthy. As Snowden himself put it in June 2013 when asked about this: “Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%.” To argue that the only newsworthy abuses are the ones that victimize Americans is grotesque, though also quite a common view among the super-patriots in American journalism (the same uber-nationalists who regard themselves as “objective”).

Beyond that, as I’ve detailed many times, the decision to publish particular documents was always made by media outlets, and never by Snowden himself. Snowden has explained repeatedly that — just as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers — he relied on journalists to make decisions about which stories were and were not in the public interest (see this compilation of Snowden’s comments over the last two years on this and many other topics). So if the LA Times editors are angry about particular news stories, they should have the courage to direct that anger at their colleagues who chose to publish them, not use those stories to argue for the imprisonment of the source.

Snowden’s whistleblowing has led to many extraordinary revelations. None 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:Connie Yu; Whistle: Shutterstock

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