David Carr writes: A disgruntled loner with access to military secrets comes across documents that pull back the veil on government actions in a lost war and decides for a variety of reasons, some noble and some personal, to share them with the world.
That was Daniel Ellsberg in 1969, and for his efforts, which became the publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was investigated and indicted, but eventually he was hailed as a hero and enshrined in the journalistic canon.
Today that role has been taken up by Pfc. Bradley E. Manning (who now wants to be known as Chelsea) and Edward J. Snowden. Their chances of being widely declared heroes aren’t nearly as great: Private Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison last week, and Mr. Snowden, who revealed documents showing the extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency, is still hiding in Russia beyond the reach of the United States government.
Perhaps they got what’s coming to them. They knew, or should have known, the risks of revealing information entrusted to them, and decided to proceed. Like almost all whistle-blowers, they are difficult people with complicated motives.
So, too, are the journalists who aid them. It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.
What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
Jeffrey Toobin, who works for both CNN and The New Yorker, called Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison.” This week, he called David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under antiterror laws, the equivalent of a “drug mule.”
Mr. Assange has also come under withering criticism, including in the pages of The New York Times, which accused him, among other things, of not smelling very nice as we cooperated with WikiLeaks in publishing reams of articles in July 2010 based on the revelations from Private Manning.
This week, Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time, wrote on Twitter: “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” (He later apologized, perhaps reasoning that salivating over the killing of anyone was in poor taste.)
What have Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald done to inspire such rancor from other journalists? Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
In the instance of the stories based on the purloined confidential documents in the Manning and Snowden leaks, we learned what our country has been doing in our name, whether it is in war zones or in digital realms.
Mr. Toobin agrees that an important debate has been joined, but says no story, no matter how big, justifies journalists’ abetting illegal acts, saying, “Journalists are not above the law.”
“The Jane Mayers, Sy Hershes and Walter Pincuses have all done superb work for decades without the rampant lawlessness that was behind these stories,” he said, adding later, “I’ve never heard any of those journalists endorsing the wholesale theft of thousands of classified government records.”
The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.
“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.” [Continue reading…]