With Us Or Against Us

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.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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