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Journalism after Snowden

January 31, 2014

Last night I was lucky enough to grab a seat across Broadway at an event put on by Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center called “Journalism after Snowden.”

It featured four distinguished panelists:

  • Jill Abramson Executive Editor, The New York Times
  • Janine Gibson Editor-in-Chief, Guardian U.S.
  • David Schulz Outside Counsel to The Guardian and Partner, Levine, Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP
  • Cass Sunstein Member, President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University

First Janine talked about receiving the documents from Snowden, or “the source” as he was called, and spending a bunch of time with her team in verifying the documents as well as focusing on exactly two questions:

  • Is this story true?
  • Is this story in the public’s interest?

She and her team decided it passed both those tests and they published it. Then Jill Abramson chimed in to talk about how the New York Times got in on the story as well.

David Schulz, and also Lee Bollinger who started out the evening, framed the legal issues around newspapers publishing things in the context of national security here in the U.S., and although much of it was over my head I came away with the distinct impression that in this country, journalisms have historically had a protected space.

However, there have been exceptions recently, and very recently Director of National Intelligence James Clapper insinuated that dozens of journalists reporting on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were “accomplices” to a crime.

Those recent events, and Obama’s general campaign against whistleblowers, which are in direct contradiction to his campaign promises, have had a chilling effect on reporting and on reporters who work on national security issues, according to NY Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.

There was some discussion about how difficult it was to have secure communication between Snowden and journalists, given the situation, and how crucial it is to be able to do so for journalists in order to protect their sources. The question came up of whether it even makes sense for a journalist to suggest to a source that they’d be protected, given how much surveillance now exists.

My favorite line of the night came when David Schulz pointed out that we normal citizens might not think we care about having secure communications, since we don’t intend to do top secret messaging, but even so the lack of secure messaging systems for other people effects what we learn about the world.

Finally, there was a poll taken by the moderator Emily Bell: are we better off because of Snowden? Not all of the panelists agreed, or rather Jill, Janine, and David seemed to think it was obvious but Cass demurred, which I guess was consistent with his being on a Review Group for Obama.

Personally, I don’t think it’s super cut and dry, but I do think we need to have people like Snowden, and whistleblowers more generally, and that in any case journalists absolutely need legal protection to do their jobs.

One last personal comment: I find it absolutely amazing that an entire profession like journalism would actually consider the public good as a major question they put before them before they choose what to work on. I’m coming from inside the tech industry and finance, where the only question that is ever asked is whether an idea is profitable and, secondarily, legal. It’s a refreshing perspective, although I’m guessing somewhat misleading.

Categories: journalism, news
  1. Thomas Ball
    January 31, 2014 at 7:21 am

    That’s a really good point about whistleblowers, journalists and the surveillance that exists today. In other words, if today’s level of surveillance had been available to the Nixon White House, Deep Throat would not only have been outed and exposed but also neutralized — one way or another — by a team of completely unscrupulous, single-minded apparatchiks determined to protect Nixon at any cost.


  2. Michael L
    January 31, 2014 at 8:50 am

    I teach at a school of social work. It’s also a profession which sees itself as promoting the public good. Here’s a passage from the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics:
    “Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.”
    I don’t think social workers are “saints” but I suspect most of us feel bound in our work by the above passage at least to some degree. My guess is there are other professions out there that take the public good into account too (perhaps nursing, public health, civil engineering). Maybe people in the tech and finance industry need to “get out more,” Given what I regularly read on this blog, it sounds like you get out more than many in your professional circles so I’m mainly speaking more generally. And to be fair to the tech crowd more of them have started to get out more too if this is any indication:


  3. P
    January 31, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Overly harsh towards finance and tech. It’s just a much lower fraction of people/firms in these industries that spend time considering the greater good.


  4. January 31, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Well right now the whole field of journalism is going through some big ups and downs as media agencies are looking for revenue streams too, you can’t miss it in the news and you have seen quite a few journalists leaving big papers too as more put in pay for performance metrics and there’s a huge focus on revenue from advertising to replace a lot of print revenue that has been lost over the years. There’s just a lot of ups and downs all over the industry and I read yesterday that one of major papers in Australia lost their funding and may close..The Global Mail
    So there’s a lot going on with that end of their business as well so I’m sure that has some impact here too on the profession overall. I just said yesterday in reflecting on one the comments above that over all people are confused and are not doing a very good job with either separating or uniting the virtual software worlds anymore and everything is getting way too gray out there and folks are looking for answers or opinions about anywhere they can get it but that’s a whole other topic.


  5. January 31, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    There’s a third question that news organizations ask: ‘Do we have the legal and financial resources to withstand a full-on assault from the targets of our story?’ In the case of the NY TImes and the Guardian, that answer was ‘Yes’. I’m not sure other news organizations could realistically answer that way.


  6. Jon Ziegler
    January 31, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Seriously? “I’m coming from inside the tech industry and finance, where the only question that is ever asked is whether an idea is profitable and, secondarily, legal.” The typical high tech start-up in Silicon Valley is done because some tech geeks dream about doing something cool that will make life better for everybody. Profit is almost irrelevant. Usually so is money except to the extent it is necessary to get anything done. Of course most such efforts fail before they grow beyond a few people.

    You must be hanging out with the wrong crowd in the tech industry. As for finance, I’m inclined to take your word for it.


    • February 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

      Another possibility is that we hear the same people differently.


    • Thomas Ball
      February 1, 2014 at 8:52 am

      Personally I think it’s completely utopian to suggest that tech geeks dreams are unalloyably focussed on “doing something cool” where profit is “almost” irrelevant. Especially since, if the dream has traction and gets exponential takeoff and growth, those geeks stand to make enormous amounts of money. Disney cartoons and 20th c anti-mammon artists may hew to those sorts of pure, unconflicted, idealistic motivations and values…but absolutely without question there is no subscription in the world of venture capital and private equity funding those dreams.


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