Good morning Miss Prism!

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

For a little over a week, the worldwide media has been in a tizz thanks to one of the scoops of the year. The details of this story have developed day by day, while of the slides given by Edward Snowden to the newspapers only a handful have so far been made public. There have been many different theses formulated about this story and newspapers and columnists have been divided on the merits and motives of Showden’s whistle-blowing (check out our notebook on Spundge).

How a scoop was born

A story such as that of PRISM with its construction, first contacts, developments, is strictly related to the world of journalism. From what has been learned so far, Snowden contacted the video journalist Laura Poitras (specialized in issues related to monitoring and freedom of the press) via e-mail, asking her to move the conversation to safer means. In an interview released with Salon, Poitras said she had some doubts about the story. For this reason she decided to contact Barton Gellman of the Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian in order to to get confirmation. According to Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post, Greenwald was supposed to have been contacted separately by a former CIA collaborator who, the New York Times says, would have worked hard (the Times uses the term ‘frustrated’) explaining to the journalist the importance of the documents. In fact, Greenwald appeared to be reluctant to accept ‘the rules of the game’ and follow a series of technical precautions which Snowden had recommended – such as using an encryption program to communicate. Charlie Savage of the New York Times adds a detail about a ‘clandestine’ meeting that took place twelve days ago in Hong Kong, between Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for the Guardian.

The story is different for Gellman of the Washington Post (who has won two Pulitzer Prizes with the Post). Contacted by the filmmaker, he was supposed to have worked later on the article keeping a low profile and submitting it to various members of the editorial staff. Only later would there have been rumours of a possible publication of the scoop in another newspaper, most likely prompted by the same source, and Gellman decided to force the online publication – although he would have preferred, by his own admission, “at least a day or two” more. The piece, which came out 20 minutes before Greenwald’s article for the Guardian (who meanwhile had already written about the case of Verizon which was a prelude to the whole NSA affair) was subsequently modified.

PRISM and journalism

Ed Bott on ZDNet criticizes the Washington Post coverage, quoting some points from the article. One of the examples given is the replacement of the sentence that defined the ability of the NSA to track “a person’s movements and contacts over time” in a more generic “track foreign targets”. According to the author of the post entitled “The real story in the NSA scandal is the collapse of journalism”, there would be all the elements to believe that the assembled article of the Post has been written with excessive “hurry” and approximation, as confirmed by Stewart Baker, a former NSA General Counsel. The hypothesis is that the Post took a leaked PowerPoint presentation, from an anonymous source, and built an entire article, leaped to conclusions without evidence and ignoring the opportunity to listen to specialists or bring evidence to support it. The confirmation of the thesis is the testimony on CNET of an anonymous former official who talks about “incorrect reports, as they were based on a misreading of the document”. Of course, for such an important newspaper which has among its medals the historic Watergate scandal, what happened is not the stuff for a nomination for the next Pulitzer Prize, says Bott.

This is not the only issue of a journalistic nature raised by the case. This week, Dan Kennedy, assistant professor at the Northeastern University School of Journalism, recalled what could be the legal issues which newspapers may face when publishing news documented by sources who have acted illegally to acquire information. The professor replies to an unsigned editorial published in the New York Times that, although it does not attack Snowden for his choice, recalls how the former employee of the CIA should “prepare to pay the price for civil disobedience”, forgetting that the same newspaper could also pay the consequences. The First Amendment, Kennedy reminds us, protects the publication of documents obtained through the violation of the law by a third party, in compliance with a strong spirit of anti-censorship, while providing consequences subsequent to the publication – for newspapers as for the sources. It is a subject on which it needs to keep vigilant, the author points out. In a time when 56% of the people interviewed by the PEW Center admit that they have no problem with this type of intrusion, it would be difficult for public opinion to be on the side of the whistleblowers and the news organization that work with them. If Snowden is in trouble, Kennedy concludes, “so are all of us”.

Blogger beats journalist

The former employee of the CIA would have trusted Greenwald for his ‘external’ condition compared to classic publishing and his positions on civil issues. Renowned blogger and activist of the Freedom of Press Foundation together with Laura Poitras, Greenwald would have been contacted in February because of his nature as a journalistic outsider. This is the thesis analyzed by Mathew Ingram in PaidContent, who talks about – in agreement with Jay Rosen, professor of the New York University – the best possible response to the long-running debate between journalism and blogging, between the figures of professional journalist and blogger – in this case a lawyer and writer, which Greenwald was before turning to journalism.

The New York Times, Ingram points out, talking about the PRISM saga and its protagonists, refers to Greenwald as a “blogger”, a definition which the public editor of the Times criticized, defining it demeaning for the work of the author. An outside position from the journalism circle, also in geographical terms. It was the Guardian, the British newspaper –  less involved in the dynamics of American publishing – and an author resident in Brazil, a country in which Greenwald lives, to get the scoop. The same Snowden, according to Laura Poitras, would have been skeptical at the idea of contacting mainstream media – especially the NYT – and would have rather contacted the London newspaper to ensure a more objective voice and less involved in US events. If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, Ingram concludes, is that not being part of the establishment media is starting to pay off. Furthermore that a blogger, in some way, can make the history of a newspaper and journalism.

The expansionist aims of The Guardian

“It is a very American story – but a very British scoop”, Ollie John and Kharunya Paramaguru begin in Time, in an article that explores the expansion plan on a global scale of The Guardian. A project which finds a considerable incentive in the news concerning the control of Verizon’s users and the PRISM affair and, according to the editor Alan Rusbridger, continues regularly. The ambition of the British newspaper to become a global brand is not a secret. After purchasing a few days ago the domain .com (to replace the British, The Guardian, however, counts on digital editions in America and Australia, and a US readership that covers a third of its entire traffic. It is a enforced choice, according to Charlie Beckett: “I don’t think they’re going to make enough money in Britain. They need to have alternative sources”.

The numbers speak for themselves: with a paper circulation more than halved in ten years, The Guardian has been owned by a trust since 1936, which provides “financial and editorial independence”, but according to Andrew Miller, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, will not last “more than three to five years”. Certainly the story of the NSA has a global reach, and will help the newspaper in its spread overseas, but the risk – according to George Brock, professor and head of journalism at City University London – is to remain a hybrid for the American audience, between the niche product and the media on a large scale, losing its quirky British identity. “Everyone knows what a Guardian reader is – a kind of muesli-crunching cynic” as Beckett puts it pithily.