Last week I argued that the UK government’s lawless detention of David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was intended to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure (and see this great follow-up by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen of Press Think).
Today, I’d like to discuss a common leftist reaction to the National Surveillance State’s war on journalism: the idea that journalists should preempt government attacks like Miranda’s detention and the destruction of Guardian computers by immediately dumping onto the Internet any secret files that come into their possession.
The notion is superficially appealing: if you’re a journalist, patiently examining a large trove of secret documents so as to minimize the private harm and maximize the public benefit of publication, and there’s a chance the government could impede or intercept your efforts, shouldn’t you insure against such a dire possibility by immediately publishing everything you have?
To answer this question, we should ask two of our own. First, what are your proper objectives as a journalist? And second, what does the National Surveillance State hope you’ll do?
I think many people would answer the first question with some version of, “The proper objective of a journalist is to make information public.” This is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s complete. To me, the proper objective of a journalist is to bring about meaningful change. Publication by itself could conceivably serve a variety of functions: it could embarrass, or titillate, or entertain… it could provide some level of emotional satisfaction for the journalist and her audience. Any one or combination of these could be an objective of journalism, but is any of them a worthy objective? I would argue no, not particularly, at least not in comparison to what I think is the most important objective of journalism, which is, again, to bring about meaningful change.
(For more on the exceptionally interesting and important topic of what journalism is for and how it can best be done, have a look at The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled, and especially at the links at the bottom of the post.)
If you agree that the proper objective of journalists like Barton Gellman and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras is to use their reporting to bring about meaningful change, I think you have to agree that timing and tactics matter. That is, what course of action would have a better chance of achieving meaningful change: immediate, indiscriminate dumping, on the one hand, or deliberate, time-released reporting, on the other? I would argue the latter, and I think the events of the last two months tend to suggest that the kind of drawn-out, deliberate reporting for which Greenwald has been criticized by some on the left support that argument. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has been caught lying to Congress; public opinion has shifted dramatically; voters are engaged in an overdue debate about programs of which previously they had no knowledge; Congress only narrowly defeated an effort to defund the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Of course I can’t prove causality, but I can’t see how any of this would have been achieved, or in any way better served, by an immediate indiscriminate data dump.
Pushing back the National Surveillance State is a long game that requires sound tactics. Those tactics can only be properly understood by reverse-engineering from the correct objectives. Yes, it might be emotionally satisfying to embarrass powerful officials, and it might be temporarily empowering to feel like you’re flipping the bird to a bunch of self-important oligarchs, and yes, an immediate dump might be the proper tactic in the service of such objectives. But they are the wrong objectives. If meaningful change is your primary goal, you have to work backward from that objective, and not let other, less worthy ones distract you.
But look, even if you disagree about which tactic would be most likely to bring about meaningful change, might the fact that we share a goal and differ only about tactics be cause for some perspective? The fury I’ve seen in some portions of the Twitterverse at Greenwald’s insistence on a patient, deliberate approach seems out of all proportion. I know patience, perspective, and civility aren’t necessarily the hallmarks of Twitter discourse, but still. This is — I think — a discreet disagreement about the utility of certain tactics, not a culture war about philosophical aims.
Okay, now let’s ask that second question. What does the National Surveillance State want?