How Mass Media Covered The Nsa Revelations

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NOTE: This story was originally written for the Global Journalist, but wasn't published due to website maintenance.

The disclosed National Security Agency documents revealed by Edward Snowden have been circulating the media landscape since first being leaked June 5, 2013.

London’s Guardian newspaper first broke the story with an article divulging how the NSA collects phone records of Verizon customers. Soon after, the Washington Post published a story revealing the NSA’s ability to tap directly into the central servers of nine, U.S.-based internet companies. More than half a year later and the story continues to unfold.

Snowden, the former NSA contractor, strategically chose journalists he felt he could trust to break this story. The two initial journalists he reached out to were constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

“He told me he’d contacted me because my border harassment meant that I’d been a person who had been selected. To be selected –and he went through a whole litany of things — means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you’re being watched. ‘You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story,’” Poitras said in an exclusive interview with Salon.

Poitras went on to say she believed Snowden had a suspicion of mainstream media, especially after what happened with the New York Times warrantless wiretapping story in 2005, which was withheld from being published for a year.

This story extends beyond NSA disclosures, it has spurred overdue public debate. The way in which mainstream media has been reporting this ongoing story has raised public inquiry. Journalist and activists alike have begun exploring new models for content distribution in wake of increased government pressure and intimidation.

Mass Media & NSA Revelations


Global Journalist interviewed press freedom expert Charles Davis via phone to find out how the mainstream media has been covering the Snowden revelations. Davis is currently the dean of the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. This multilayered story illustrates the obstacles the mass media faces when reporting on such a large issue, and Davis provided his insight.

“The revelations about the NSA’s eavesdropping program has been one of those stories that I think most bedevils the mass media because it is a slow-moving, multiplayer affair with many many moving parts that unfold not in a spectacular explosion, but in a million drips and drops,” Davis said. “And that has always been one of the great challenges of mass media, to get its arms around a story of that breadth and scope.”

Davis said the mass media has a tendency to get deeply involved with trivia and nonsense, but this story is nothing but substantive, public affairs driven investigative journalism.

“The nature of the NSA is a secretive entity by its very origin,” Davis said. “Its mission is secrecy. So it’s not like covering Congress or covering even a regulatory agency that has a fair number of mechanisms that are generating documents and hearings and other things. It sort of exists in that netherworld of the security apparatus.”

Davis said he believes the decision to spread the documents out amongst a network of individuals as opposed to institutions better protects the source network and the document trail from attempts by the government to target individual institutions.

Typically, when a single media outlet acquires an exclusive story, they’ll publish every serialized piece while other outlets follow suit. However, Davis said he believes this story did a better job of attracting attention because it pursued a different approach.

“Even then, I would argue, that even given the care that those stories broke incrementally over a number of weeks and months in a variety of different outlets through different individuals, there still hasn’t been the traction under the story that it deserves by any means,” Davis said.

“I think there’s sort of a world weariness that’s set in among a lot of people when it comes to the government and their electronic surveillance. I think there a cynicism that we’re being watched, we know we’re being watched, so what’s the big deal? The outrage just isn’t there in the way that I think it would be.”

The Chilling Effect of 9/11


“You can imagine a very different reaction in 1999 to the same stories,” Davis said. “I think people would be outraged.”

“At least since the aftermath of September 2001, western governments and intelligence agencies have been hard at work expanding the scope of their own power, while eroding privacy, civil liberties and public control of policy,” former whistleblowers wrote in an open letter published by the Guardian.

There’s a collective cost-benefit analysis that has gone on in this country. “Since Sept. 12, 2001, people have reevaluated all of those issues,” Davis said.

Currently there’s this very tense relationship between the public and security apparatus — the public says you can have [surveillance access] to keep us safe as long as you’re keeping us safe, and the people whose job it is to protect us argue very strongly that they need those tools to do so. “There’s just an element of trust that comes with that. For good or bad, it’s just there,” Davis said.

Targeting Sources


The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a special report in October to address the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers and broad electronic surveillance programs, which intimidate sources from working with journalists.

“It’s been interesting the last few months because the administration has reacted to that report by saying ‘We don’t do that.’ When in fact they do, and the record is a mile long. So it becomes this sort of Orwellian response where they say, ‘We don’t do that,’ which [is] exactly [what] they are doing over and over again,” Davis said.

“So I think ultimately the legislative response is necessary. It has been necessary for some time in order to show the bureaucracy tangibly that there’s legal protection for accountability.”

Davis says he’s been arguing in favor for a federal shield law for a decade now, but hasn’t always held that position because one can’t always predict the outcome of the legislative process.

“Currently, 49 states (Wyoming is the only unenlightened one) have shield laws or operate under court rulings that grant journalists and their sources a “privilege” much like those afforded to lawyers and their clients, and therapists and their patients. This protection applies only to local and state cases, not federal ones,” the Society of Professional Journalists reported.

“The events of the past few years, particularly the Obama administration’s ramping up of trying to clamp down on confidential sources, just shows that without some formal, federal protection the D.C. bureaucracy is increasingly difficult for the people who are reporting on the national security apparatus to find out the first thing that’s going on,” Davis said. “It’s created a culture of real fear.”

Journalists React


The Guardian has undergone scrutiny from government agencies for publishing several leaked documents. Alan Rusbridger, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, was called before a parliamentary committee for questioning, and he told officials the Guardian "would not be put off by intimidation, but nor are we going to behave recklessly.”

Greenwald first broke the story while working at the Guardian, but announced his resignation in October to go to a new media startup funded by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.

“I'm not leaving because of those threats – if anything, they make me want to stay and continue to publish here – but I do believe it's urgent that everyone who believes in basic press freedoms unite against this,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald joined Poitras and National Security Correspondent Jeremy Scahill among others in the new venture originally dubbed NewCo.

Davis says subject matter experts are beginning to emerge, especially in the security apparatus, who may or may not be tied to one news gathering organization. This provides an opportunity similar to the publishing model of Wikileaks in the sense content will be dispersed to a variety of providers.

“It makes it a lot more difficult for governments around the world to repress because they don’t even know exactly who to go repress,” Davis said.

“The internet and the move toward digital-first publishing, and in some cases digital-only publishing, just makes it that much easier because it disintermediates the mass media in a huge way,” Davis said. “Anybody can be a player.”

“Journalists have done everything in their power according to traditional journalistic mores to signal to the public, ‘Hey, this is a huge deal, it merits your attention.’ That’s what journalists can do,” Davis said. “They can’t make the public decide to be outraged about something. That ultimately is the job of the public, reading and deciding.”

Photo credit: Creative Commons

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