One of the more tedious issues raised by the Edward Snowden affair is the endless self-talk among journalistic types about what constitutes “journalism.” Not only is this a sidenote — highly opinionated journalists writing for mainstream papers like Glenn Greenwald are still journalists no matter how unfair, obnoxious, or confrontational they are — it has resulted in a bizarre and, ultimately, destructive polarization amongst the chattering class. Namely, the idea that questioning Snowden’s motives, the consequences of his leaks, or the criminal liability of the case is somehow off-limits.
John Cassidy wrote a highly-read piece for the New Yorker this week explaining this in detail.
But where are Snowden’s defenders? As of Monday, the editorial pages of the Times and the Washington Post, the two most influential papers in the country, hadn’t even addressed the Obama Administration’s decision to charge Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of theft.
If convicted on all three counts, the former N.S.A. contract-systems administrator could face thirty years in jail. On the Sunday-morning talk shows I watched, there weren’t many voices saying that would be an excessive punishment for someone who has performed an invaluable public service.
This is a curious claim, considering many journalists — especially on Twitter, where these discussions take place at greatest length — seem to either support the leaks or not take particularly strong stands on the matter. Whether Snowden’s leaks are “invaluable public service” is something to debate, but Cassidy’s search for supporters amongst the journalist class is unsettling. Can a reporter just not take sides? Cassidy says no.
In this case, though, I’m with Snowden—not only for the reasons that Drake enumerated but also because of an old-fashioned and maybe naïve inkling that journalists are meant to stick up for the underdog and irritate the powerful. On its side, the Obama Administration has the courts, the intelligence services, Congress, the diplomatic service, much of the media, and most of the American public. Snowden’s got Greenwald, a woman from Wikileaks, and a dodgy travel document from Ecuador. Which side are you on?
In this piece, Cassidy is abandoning any pretense of truth-seeking. He has already made up his mind. And that’s fine as far as it goes — I’m highly skeptical of Snowden’s motives and suspect he’s done considerable harm to the country despite revealing worrying overreaches in surveillance programs — but that’s a debate to have, and if different evidence comes out I’m all for changing my mind. Cassidy, on the other hand, is on Team Snowden.
The piece he wrote is called “Demonizing Edward Snowden,” as if asking awkward questions about his motivations (by his own admission he took a job at the NSA specifically to knowingly perjure himself, steal information, then flee to China), about the involvement of the journalists who helped him (who were in contact with him before he knowingly perjured himself), and about the consequences of those leaks (unraveling defensive cyber operations against China and Russia) amounts to “demonization.” As Cassidy himself notes, journalists should ask those questions. Unless you’re on Team Snowden. Then it’s “demonization.”
For a New Yorker staff writer of 18 years, Cassidy’s demand that journalists pick a side — you’re either with him or against him — is remarkable. And hypocritical, given the intense scrutiny and criticism he levied on the Manichean policies of Bush administration. In Cassidy’s worldview, asking questions is demonization. Being skeptical (or even neutral) of the disclosures and the people behind them is being on Team Government.
So maybe we should have that tedious debate about what journalism means. Because it’s turning into something I no longer recognize: prejudgment, abandoning a quest for truth, cherry picking (or inventing) facts, and adopting the worst sorts of divide-and-conquer toxicity that defined the first Bush administration. When esteemed writers at a premier writing outlet like the New Yorker descend into advocating cheap hackery, maybe the debate about journalism is over and done with. And Glenn Greenwald won.