A few months ago, I wrote that it was wrong to try to classify Edward Snowden as either a whistle-blower or a traitor, because he’s a bit of each.
Only now he’s a whistle-blowing outlaw with a Pulitzer Prize to his name.
Formally, of course, the prize went to the newspapers that published articles based on Snowden’s massive data leak, the Washington Post and the Guardian. They don’t give the Pulitzer Prize to sources.
But the Pulitzer board members, a gilt-edged group drawn from such institutions as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Columbia University, knew they were giving Snowden a signal honor too.
Were they right?
If it’s a question of impact, that’s easy: Snowden’s revelations forced the Obama administration and Congress to launch significant reforms of NSA’s practices, reforms that weren’t happening before. These were the most important newspaper investigations of the year.
If it’s a question of journalistic quality, that’s pretty easy too. The two newspapers didn’t just summarize the digital mountain of documents Snowden gave them; they assembled teams of reporters — the Post listed 33 contributors — to turn data into intelligible reports.
Were the newspapers’ judgments infallible? I still have some of the qualms I expressed back in January. I’m not sure I would have published every detail in those stories. Some of the programs they revealed included legitimate espionage against China and Russia. Not all of them posed major threats to the privacy rights of American citizens. (Non-Americans like German Chancellor Angela Merkel? That’s another story.)
But Barton Gellman of the Post eventually convinced me that it was impossible to explain the NSA’s “back door” collection of data on Americans — information scooped up overseas that would have been illegal to collect inside the United States — without describing where it came from.
Besides, the NSA’s record of obfuscation and rule-stretching didn’t earn the agency the benefit of many doubts. The Snowden revelations wouldn’t have had half the impact if the agency had kept a tighter rein on its actions. Yes, Congress and the White House should have been the ones to exercise oversight, but they didn’t.
History has taught journalists, over and over, that disclosure is almost always better than concealment. When in doubt, our job is to publish and let the public and Congress sort it out. It’s an imperfect process, but so is democracy.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus