The media storm engulfed this past summer with the breaking and subsequent three months of solid coverage of Edward Snowden and the NSA file leaks. Visiting D.C. and meeting with top journalists provided a prime opportunity for open discussion on the line between exposing necessary truths to the public and putting national security at risk.
While the issue is far more complex than just two sides of patriot versus traitor, those qualifiers remain the general divider between most public opinion, in the broadest scope of the matter. The media thrives both off stories of heroism and of criminalized scandal. But the issue of the NSA leaks and the extensive media coverage given to it – while it could qualify under either, depending on one’s opinion – seemed to not fall under a consensus at major media networks and outlets under questions of ethics, public safety, and public knowledge.
Of the two leading news outlets I spoke with over the past two days, both openly admitted that their entity never reached a conclusion on the question racing through the studios, which were reporting only the aftermath: Had Snowden approached them with the files, would they have published them?
It’s a question far more involved than it may seem on the surface, where even then its complications are still relatively clear. Journalism is built on the basis of checks and balances – news media is one of the key ways the government and other large entities, both domestic and worldwide, are held accountable. If a person’s rights are being violated, the media is the one to inform and ignite the public.
However, when the NSA leaks were published and the public “informed,” it was also put at risk. National security measures were out in the open to a mass-audience worldwide. Additionally, foreign relations suffered – some more significantly than others – as allies and friendly countries questioned the honesty and integrity of the American government. Moreover, the position of America as a capable and stable government was weakened in the eyes of enemies – i.e., al Qaida.
Media professionals in D.C. did all agree on the fact that had they been presented with the documents and decided to extend consideration, the process before publishing would have been incredibly extensive – involving ethics and standards specialists, top-level deliberation within the company, and, in some cases, clearance by and discussion with the highest-ranking officials in the White House.
And because I am yet to speak with a journalist who is able to provide a clear-cut view on the rights and wrongs of publishing the NSA files, the question can be turned more directly retrospective: Was the exposé fanfare worth the consequences seen now, and the consequences now possible?