Editorial: Blowing the Whistleblower Issue

By: Ed Zintel

I was in college, studying journalism, when the Watergate scandal came to light. We all know the media’s famous role in this historical time in American politics. Relying heavily on anonymous sources, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information that then-president Richard Nixon and his administration attempted to cover up: their knowledge of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.

The repercussions of Watergate were far-reaching, including, of course, in the media. The subsequent glamorization of the investigative work by Woodward and Bernstein led to a book and movie, “All the President’s Men,” and applications to journalism schools reached an all-time high in 1974.

Newspaper reporter became a sought-after career at the time, and we could thank the various whistleblowers around Watergate for that. Unfortunately, it’s as if time—40 years of it—has made us forget all that.

Take, for example, the media’s attitude toward Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who in 2013 broke the story of the National Security Agency’s activities, based on information he received from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Instead of heralding Greenwald as the journalistic hero that both Woodward and Bernstein became, he was vilified by some of his fellow media members. As David Carr wrote in the New York Times, “The larger sense I get from criticism directed at … Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste—that [he isn’t] what we think of as [a] real journalist. Instead, [he] represents an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in the traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.”

Well, journalists, it’s time to get over yourselves.

This cuts to the very core of freedom of the press throughout the world. Of course the topic of endangering national security is a sticky wicket. But the media’s fundamental objectives—to inform citizens and to act as a “checks and balances” tool, as the gatekeeper, for their government—must be adhered to.

For his part, Greenwald has said that he and the Guardian were extremely careful in the reporting of the NSA-Snowden story, as they should have been. Greenwald told Chris Elliott of the Guardian in a September 22, 2013 interview that “we have been…cautious the whole time, probably careful to a fault. We have been determined not to unilaterally destroy programs or put people in danger. Snowden was adamant that we engage in this very careful process. …I think you have to remember that you can always publish something that is unpublished but you can’t unpublish something once it’s published.”

Right. Listen, I understand that journalism has changed radically in the years since Watergate. This day of instantaneous postings of stories — real and imagined — via the Internet has diluted what is authentic news, but we cannot let that affect how we do our jobs. In particular, we cannot in a democratic society allow the willingness of governments to abuse their power and attack press freedoms.

This is as important an issue as any journalism has faced. As Greenwald was quoted saying, “I think it is the role of journalism to tell people what they should know and are not allowed to know. …Would it be better if the world remained ignorant of that?”

Journalists need to take a stand and stand up for whistleblowers. If we don’t, we might never become as respected and revered as we one were and need to be again.

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Published: September 24, 2014

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