"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
The above words, from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are revealing: They tell us about a man completely aware of the gravity of his choices, and of the implications of the information he leaked. They tell us that Snowden—fully aware of the media circus that surrounded the personalities, rather than the substance, of leaked State Department cables published by WikiLeaks nearly two years prior—was hoping that the media would take a different approach this time around.
Since Snowden revealed his identity, the focus of US media has been overwhelmingly on him, rather than the legality or constitutionality of the NSA’s surveillance programs. The obsession with Snowden encompasses everything from a journalistic game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ to straight up mockery. The focus on Snowden is so strong, in fact, that there are now meta-analyses being published on why the story is so compelling to journalists.
The above graph from the past 30 days shows that Google News searches for Snowden dwarf searches for information on the subjects that his disclosures have shed light on. While this is a graph of news searches and not news headlines, searches usually follow media coverage, not the other way around. It shows a media transfixed by Snowden’s story, while largely ignoring why he became a story in the first place.
Outside of the US, media coverage seems much more interested in the substance rather than the style. The German press, for example, has focused much its attention on the complicity of German intelligence with the NSA, while in India, the revelations have prompted a broad dialogue about that country’s own spying apparatus. The same goes for Brazil. In Egypt, press have looked at the NSA in the greater context of the police state. The press in these countries doesn’t seem to hinge holding the US government accountable for privacy abuses based on Snowden’s temporary location.
Many individuals in the US have called upon the media in earnest to refocus their attention to where it matters: The threats to civil liberties posed by the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. A few journalists have weighed in as well, urging fellow journalists to drop their fixation on Snowden’s motives. And yet, a puzzling phenomenon has also emerged: That of the journalist or commentator who gets up on his or her high horse to condemn Snowden for “stealing the story”—despite their own failure to do any substantive reporting on the NSA.
Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and MSNBC commentator, is outspoken on a number of issues, from slut-shaming to the force-feeding of Guantanamo detainees, but hasn’t managed to muster up any outrage against the government’s mass surveillance programs...which is why this, in her open letter to Edward Snowden this week, came as a surprise:
We could be talking about whether accessing and monitoring citizen information and communications is constitutional, or whether we should continue to allow a secret court to authorize secret warrants using secret legal opinions.
But we’re not. We’re talking about you! And flight paths between Moscow and Venezuela, and how much of a jerk Glenn Greenwald is. We could at least be talking about whether the Obama administration is right that your leak jeopardized national security. But we’re not talking about that, Ed.
Harris-Perry’s commentary denies the autonomy of journalists and pundits and implies that they are somehow hypnotized by Snowden’s escapades, rendered incapable of thinking for themselves. An appropriate response to Harris-Perry would be: Many of us are talking about whether accessing and monitoring citizen information and communications is constitutional, and that information is easily accessible online. So what’s stopping you?
The list of substantive stories on the NSA’s vast surveillance apparatus and the NSA's corporate partners published by the Guardian in the last month is staggering. Couple the initial disclosures with the additional reporting that has occurred purely in response to Snowden’s leaks—which journalism professor Jay Rosen has described it as the Snowden Effect—and we have a trove of information on domestic spying kept from the American public. Just in the last week, we’ve learned about Microsoft’s broad cooperation with the NSA to give them access to encrypted messages, and more on the unaccountable FISA court’s sweeping opinions re-interpreting the Fourth Amendment and privacy law, which are all done in secret. And the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper continues to face no consequences for knowingly lying to Congress.
Pundits and commentators have instead chosen to focus on Snowden at the expense of the information he exposed, and unfortunately, pundits often drive news in this country as much as, or more than, straight reporting in newspapers. Harris-Perry is far from alone. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank claims to believe that Snowden was justified in leaking information about the NSA’s spying, but spends more time accusing him of undermining his own cause than he does supporting that cause. The Post’s Jonathan Capehart has spent nearly 2,500 words vilifying Snowden, but next to none on the information that Snowden revealed. This list goes on.
As Kevin Gosztola wrote last week, it is these disingenuous arguments that distract from the real issue. If Harris-Perry, Milbank, or Capehart want to turn the focus from Snowden to the illegal and unconstitutional spying conducted by the NSA, they should use their considerably prominent platforms to do so. No one is stopping them.
Jillian C. York is the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The views expressed her are her own.