How the Washington Post’s Statement on Edward Snowden Sparked Controversy and Conversation Within the Media


In September, the Washington Post’s editorial board told the world what they collectively thought of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who blew the whistle (so to speak) on a mass surveillance program that until then had operated in the shadows of government servers and without the knowledge of the American people.

The news organization no longer had to protect its source. That was not part of the pact with Snowden, who first took the information to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, now of The Intercept. They introduced Snowden to the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, which published some, but not all, of the information he delivered to them.

Then, Snowden revealed himself to the world.

The reporting and analysis the Post did in the wake of the reveal earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2014.

Despite the Pulitzer, the editorial board felt it needed to take a position on the possibility of a presidential pardon as President Obama’s second term concludes, but it was more than a definitive law-and-order stance. Beyond simply advocating for Snowden’s prosecution for laws and contracts he admits to breaking, the board agreed with a report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that Snowden had possibly caused “tremendous damage to national security.” The statement was a study in rhetoric. The word choices were purposeful and packed a punch.

 Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland
Lucy Dalglish

“I was surprised by how strong it was, but by being strong they were very clear,” said Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “There was no ambiguity.”

What makes the soured relationship even more fascinating and strange is that Post journalists and editors did, in fact, determine which documents and what information to publish—not their source.

The opinion went on to question Snowden’s judgment about releasing other documents that were not in relation to the surveillance program, and for choosing an odd ally in Russia, though it seems that Snowden didn’t actually “choose” Russia but was forced there when his U.S. passport was revoked.

The board also implied that Snowden’s refusal to come back to the States to face charges is an act of cowardice. Granted, the editorial board is not the same as the newsroom team, and many of those colleagues may have a different take on Snowden and his worthiness of pardon.


The Backlash

Three days after the board’s opinion was published, the Post’s own media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, wrote about Snowden, referring to him as a “patriot” and deserving of a presidential pardon.

Within a day of the board’s opinion, Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept responded with an opinion of his own, “WashPost Makes History: First Paper to Call for Prosecution of Its Own Source (After Accepting Pulitzer).” Greenwald pointed out the New York Times and the Guardian had voiced opinions that Snowden be allowed to return to the United States and face no charges because the disclosures were “in the public interest.” What the Post’s board had done was a historical first, Greenwald said and it became “the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source.”

So what was the motivation?

There is plenty of speculation about why the editorial board felt the need to publish a statement on Snowden at all. Perhaps it was motivated by the pending end of term for the current president, who may be considering presidential pardons as a final act.

Perhaps the release of the Oliver Stone movie on Snowden—cited in the opinion piece—had something to do with it. Maybe the board wanted to get out in front of that?

It didn’t take long for the world to hear from Snowden via Twitter: “To defend from critics, @WashingtonPost attacks the story they broke. Which won the Pulitzer for Public Service.”

But it doesn’t seem as though the public was tuned in enough to take much notice of the board’s publication; conversely, it garnered a lot of attention in media circles. The Washington Post was mocked and criticized for what seemed like a breach in its long history of source protection.

“Anticipating that the Wash Post editorial board will call for the prosecution of all who have leaked govt secrets to Bob Woodward,” Jack Shafer, senior media writer at Politico, tweeted.

However, maybe this started a long overdue debate about what it means to “protect” a source, and whether the pact ends when the source’s identity has been revealed—and in such a bold, internationally intriguing way that Snowden chose to reveal himself to the world.

“If you make a promise to a source, you should keep it,” Dalglish said.

She cautioned against labeling the board’s position as a “betrayal” for two reasons: We do not know the promises—if any—made to Snowden about protecting his identity or anything he revealed to the publishers, and, since Snowden himself chose to come forward rather publicly, what else is there to protect, she suggested.

“There has always been tension—always—between journalists who want information and their sources,” she added. “In many instances over the years, a journalist’s ability to protect a source has been limited…Journalists are not whistleblower protectors. That’s not to say that they don’t sympathize with whistleblowers. They do. They need whistleblowers. But the whistleblower’s goal is to get information out, and the journalist’s job is to get the story.”

When she first read the editorial board’s opinion, Raquel Rutledge, investigative reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, called it a “great surprise.”

Raquel Rutledge, reporter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Raquel Rutledge

“I related vicariously to the situation as an investigative journalist. My visceral feeling was a sense of betrayal, but that was short lived,” she said. “As I processed it, and my rational brain took hold, I became not only okay with it, but respectful of it—for a couple of basic, but important reasons, none of which has anything to do with whether or not I agree with the content of the editorial.”

Without judging the content of the opinion, Rutledge said it was okay for an editorial board to differ in opinion with journalists and editors in the news organization.

“We, as journalists, are constantly having to preach to the public that there is a real and true wall between our editorial departments and our newsrooms. Readers seldom seem to believe it,” Rutledge said. “They regularly blur opinion pieces with news and read biases into news stories that, in reality, have bled over from their own perceptions and reactions to what they’ve read in commentary.

“The important of the distinction between the Post’s news and editorial departments is critical for the integrity of the entire operation. Its existence actually counts on it, especially in a time when a growing number of media outlets are failing to uphold that standard.”


Just the Facts

There were others in the press who challenged the editorial board’s statement, not because they snubbed a source, but because they felt the logic was flawed.

Trevor Timm of the Guardian took that counter position in an op-ed called “The Washington Post is wrong: Edward Snowden should be pardoned.” In it, he chastised the board for perpetuating the very premise that Snowden “dumped” 1.5 million documents. He pointed out, “The House intelligence committee did not point to a single concrete example of how national security was harmed solely by the Snowden disclosures.” And he went on to challenge the board’s assertions that Snowden could’ve gone through “proper channels” to reveal the information; nor did he choose Russia for asylum.

Some of the criticisms were even harsher. Daniel Denvir penned a piece for  which began, “There is a special place in journalism hell reserved for The Washington Post editorial board now that it has called on President Barack Obama to not pardon National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

Denvir referred to the board as cynical and intellectually dishonest in its rationale and asserted, “Defending one’s sources, of course, is a bedrock value of journalism.”

They say that slopes are slippery, and this feels like one of those. Though it seems highly unlikely that Snowden will return to his homeland to face prosecution, the Post’s editorial board challenged him to do just that, implying that anything less would be cowardly and patently unmartyr-like.

The board minced no words stating its concurrence that Snowden’s actions are worthy of charges and prosecution. That raises still more questions about what role the news organization might play in such a prosecution, and if its people could be compelled to offer damaging testimony about working with the whistleblower?

Dalglish doubts it.

“I’m wracking my brain for a reason why they would need the Post to present evidence. There’s nothing in question here,” she said. Should Snowden actually be brought back to face prosecution, Dalglish expects that the publishers’ involvement in that prosecution would be limited to simple questions like: “Mr. Gellman (Post reporter Barton Gellman led the coverage based on the documents Snowden provided), this is your story. Do you stand by it?”

Would it put the newspaper’s own process of due diligence and editorial judgment under the public microscope, as well?

In his definitive rebuttal to the Post’s position, Greenwald reminded the board that it was its own newsroom that determined what to publish, not the source.


+E+P Feature_Snowden.inddWhat about the Whistleblowers?

While the public may have been nonplussed about the editorial board’s position, it was probably very interesting to fence-sitting whistleblowers around the nation who may be considering coming forward with sensitive information, as well. Could the statement have a chilling effect on them and on future publisher-source relationships?

Some suspect it may; others fear that it may. When asked if he thought would-be whistleblowers had taken notice of the editorial board’s statement, David Robinson, investigative reporter, The Journal News (White Plains, N.Y.) and, said, “Yes, because many potential whistleblowers are media savvy.”

Kristina Scala Nasuti, investigative reporter at the Burlington County Times in New Jersey, said, “If the public shied away from responding to this, there’s no telling if future whistleblowers will think twice about stepping forward. I think that it’s a matter of developing trust within the community that will determine what information is revealed to a news organization—and maybe a little bit of luck to go along with it.”

“I happen to have had a whistleblower who provided me with key information that led to a series of stories on fraud in a taxpayer-supported program, which resulted in dozens of criminal convictions, more than $100 million in taxpayer savings, and like the Post, a Pulitzer Prize,” Rutledge said.

She continued, “The information included personal and confidential information, though it did not relate to national security. Still, we had discussions with our attorneys and with our sources about what lengths we would go to defend them. Ultimately, it is up to the source whether the risk of breaking laws is worth it. That is not a decision any journalist should be making or encouraging. I think we need to be comfortable that they are aware of the potential consequences of their actions before we publish, and as I said, it’s important that we clearly communicate to what extent we can or will protect them. But, as journalists, it is also our job to maintain that distance from sources, so we don’t become too cozy to be able to continue to report fairly. I’m not saying that it is easy, but considering all the details in the Snowden case, with so much at stake, that impartiality is vital.”

In the case of Rutledge’s Pulitzer-earning series “Cashing in on Kids,” Rutledge said there was an initial call by local government to prosecute a whistleblower. “That quickly died when it became clear the public was incensed at the lack of oversight of the program, resulting in millions of dollars being scammed. The whistleblower was almost universally the public’s hero.”

Snowden is more of a polarizing personality. Some call him a patriot; others want to see him tried for treason. What future whistleblowers think of him is anyone’s guess.

“Courageous, good-intentioned whistleblowers are few and far between as it is,” Rutledge said. “In the end, Snowden’s actions resulted in some changes and an informed public, which was his stated intent in sharing the information. So while he’s personally suffering the consequences, some potential whistleblowers might perceive it as having been worth it for the greater good. Tough to say.”

“I think the bigger chilling effect to whistleblowers these days is the fact that the government doesn’t really need the media anymore to make a case,” Dalglish said. “That is absolutely causing a chill. With digital trails, the government can go and see who had access to information. Then, they unwind the yarn ball, get to the bottom of it and reverse engineer the story.

“There haven’t been that many subpoenas in recent years because they don’t need the journalists as often anymore. They just follow the electronic trails. There are some stories being done with pretty sophisticated encryption…but the fact that the government has that ability now is absolutely chilling to whistleblowers.”

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