In an auditorium so large that Columbia’s Journalism School typically only uses it for its graduation ceremonies, hundreds attended the panel discussion “Journalism After Snowden” on Thursday, January 30th. The topic was as vast as it is timely—encompassing the rising tensions between media organizations and their governments, the practical process of protecting sensitive information (digitally) and oneself (legally), and the delicate dance between privacy and power.
Moderator: Emily Bell – Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism/Columbia Journalism School
Jill Abramson – Executive Editor, The New York Times
Janine Gibson – Editor-in-Chief, Guardian U.S.
David Schulz – Outside Counsel to The Guardian/Lecturer, Columbia Law School/Partner, Levine, Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP
Cass Sunstein – Member, President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies/Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at the journalism school, moderated the panel, and she started it off by asking Guardian US Editor in Chief Janine Gibson to give a behind-the-scenes account of the very beginning of the Summer of Snowden. Gibson described how Glenn Greenwald called her in New York shortly after making contact with his then-nameless source, saying something like “I think I have the biggest intelligence leak in a generation, if not ever.”
The conversation shifted to the Guardian’s collaboration with The New York Times as the documents from Snowden kept coming over the following months. Jill Abramson’s first response to Bell’s question about the Times getting involved was an honest memory of her disappointment that her paper hadn’t been first with the scoop. “We did not break the story—the Guardian and The Washington Post did—and that caused me, you know, severe indigestion,” said Abramson.
The Guardian’s outside counsel, David Schulz, was on the panel as well. He had previously worked with the Times during their WikiLeaks coverage. When asked about the legal challenges to news organizations dealing with such sensitive material, he started with the word “conundrum.” A news organization possessing and then publishing classified documents is “still a legal gray area,” said Schulz.
At one point, Bell asked the panel, “I think we can all agree that Edward Snowden has done us a favor. Do we have general agreement on that?”
“I have no comment on that,” answered Cass Sunstein, the fourth panelist, who participated in the President’s outside review group that recently released a report proposing changes to the NSA surveillance program. “We have a 300-page report, and the word ‘Snowden’ doesn’t appear.” Later, Sunstein also said that he did not think that the members of the review group would refer to Snowden as “a whistleblower” at all. (So what is he, then?)
A persistent and important theme that the panel kept returning to—that, besides journalists’ legal protections, equivalent protections should be extended to the people who risk their livelihoods, and lives, to bring this information to light in the first place.
Bell agreed: “Where oversight has failed, a whistleblower and journalism has succeeded,” she said. “And yet the system is still wanting to punish, if you like, the one thing which has led to transparency and clarity.”
“But that should be completely unsurprising,” Abramson jumped in, citing the fact that the current administration has investigated seven “criminal leaks,” more than twice the number of such investigations, based on a law passed in 1917, pursued before President Obama took office. That such legal battles were still being fought by James Rosen, of Fox News, and James Risen, of the Times, were mentioned several times throughout the evening.
Gibson also highlighted the new and alarming ways in which the Snowden story has caused certain threats from the establishment to escalate.
“Instead of the position that journalists find themselves in where they’re being threatened with prosecution over identifying their sources, we are now being put in the position of something even more chilling—of being ‘co-conspirators,’” said Gibson. The accusation is now “‘You’re part of a conspiracy, possibly involving the KGB, or maybe China. Because the ordinary way of chilling journalism won’t work in this case. And I think this should be profoundly worrying, because that’s not going to stop. That is a ‘Journalism After Snowden’ problem.”
Barton Gellman, who leads NSA coverage at The Washington Post, spoke to this same issue. Speaking from the audience, Gellman asked the panelists to try to parse the Director of National Intelligence’s statement this week that Edward Snowden “and his accomplices” should return the documents he stole in order to protect US security from being further compromised. Are we to understand that James Clapper was referring to the press with that term, “accomplices,” Gellman asked, or was this just a rhetorical flourish of his agency’s frustration? Either way, he said, it is getting harder to report on national security issues.
Schulz responded to Gellman’s concerns with this frightening truth: “The technology that we have today, you don’t need to subpoena a reporter anymore. There’s an ability to find out who gave out any information,” said Schulz. “And we should all be very concerned about that, because we all need whistleblowers…. If we don’t have a mechanism that allows for whistleblowers, our whole society is going to suffer.”
Bell ended the night by asking the panelists for their magic-wand wish for what journalism would ideally look like in this post-Snowden age. Sunstein named internet freedom, and Schultz imagined an internationally agreed-upon standard for individual privacy rights.
The two editors had more profession-specific requests.
“More great stories,” said Abramson.
“No prosecution for journalists,” said Gibson. This was met by spontaneous applause.