Monday, June 10, 2013

Fairy Tales & Frustrations

As we expected last week, when the latest controversy about the NSA's spying programs hit the media, much more of the story was likely to come out over the weekend. Indeed, more of the story has now come out - though certainly not in the way those deifying writer Glenn Greenwald wished it would.

We warned on Friday that Greenwald - an excellent writer on many issues - is not a journalist, and that his lack of formal training and professionalism would likely cause him and this story trouble. Sure as the sunrise, questions surrounding procedures and verifications that Greenwald, the Guardian, and the Washington Post SHOULD have made on this story before publishing - but quite obviously did not - have now been raised by writers and journalists alike.

What could have been a fast-growing seed planted by Greenwald, that could have led to a long-overdue national discussion of privacy and security has instead turned into childish bickering by politicians and the media over a story with elements of a fairy tale. As for frustrated Americans, they're simply fed up with spying from the government, incompetence from the media, and lying from both - and now they're in no mood for an in depth discussion of either privacy or secrecy.

A handful of editors at the Washington Post didn't help this mess over the weekend. Just as the Post is starting to ask readers to pay for their online product, their editorial conduct on this story raised some questions. A key "fact" in their reporting of the NSA & FBI's PRISM program - that the government was "tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies" - was altered by the Post over the weekend, with barely any fanfare at all. Yet without that key fact, many of the most exciting details fall apart, since the program's ideas are not new, as we stated on Friday. That Americans believe their government is spying on them is something many Americans either already knew about or have long assumed.

Things fell apart further after the leaker, Edward Snowden, outed himself over the weekend. It's become blazingly obvious to anyone that passed Journalism 101 that Snowden has far too little formal training and education to have been allowed the kinds of clearance he claims to - and apparently did - have. A major credibility gap in any source's background like that, on a story this important should have rang major warning bells at both the Guardian & the Post. Instead, both rushed to publish before they had their facts straight. This lapse in judgement leads us to believe Greenwald's fact checking at times may have been treated to barely more supervision and journalistic scrutiny than he's previously had at other major media organizations.

None of this addresses the key discussion which we are certain Greenwald wanted to open up - and on that note, we do not fault him. If Glenn Greenwald's intention was to open up the national discussion between security and privacy, we laud him for at least having the guts to address head-on a topic the overwhelming majority of our media colleagues have successfully avoided since 2001.

That topic is one that President Obama himself addressed directly in unscripted remarks Friday, when he said, "It’s important to recognize that you can’t have a hundred percent security and also then have a hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society."

What's obvious now is that Mr. Greenwald, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Mr. Snowden have all made choices they're going to have to deal with, as more of the facts of this case unfold. Whatever their motives may have been, those of us who do care about the discussion of the balance between security and liberty will now have to work significantly harder to get Americans truly engaged in that valuable debate, thanks to the bungled delivery of this story so far.

We understand the best intentions of Greenwald, Snowden, the Guardian, and the Post may have all been good. As the Christian axiom says though, the road to hell is also paved with good intensions. Maybe next time a story of such magnitude hits the desk of a major media organization, instead of simply making this another fairy tale to anger the public, they'll invest in some solid journalism before hitting "publish," and won't trust so much in unverified details from unknown sources that are too good to be entirely true.