The BBC’s 16 questions to Glenn Greenwald

Hey, that was a tough interview! No, not really.

4 Oct 2013 3:47 pm 47 Comments

This week Glenn Greenwald was interviewed on the BBC for the first time since the revelations from Edward Snowden began to flow. The program on which he appeared, Newsnight, is one of the BBC’s premiere productions. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. Here’s the clip:

Below I have listed the 16 questions asked in this interview. These are my paraphrases but they are very close paraphrases.

1. Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?

2. 58,000 documents! GCHQ says this is a car crash coming. [No question.]

3. Metadata connections are often used to track terrorists. By revealing them, you may have caused would-be terrorists to change their tactics. So it’s possible you’ve made it easier for terrorists to evade detection. [No question.]

4. How can you be sure that your actions have not made it easier for the terrorists. You can’t prove a negative, can you?

5. Is it shocking that spy agencies spy? Don’t you think a majority of people would be reassured by that and feel safer because of it?

6. You still have a vast cache of materials from Snowden. Is it in your bedroom in Rio? People want to know: how can you guarantee that it’s being kept secure?

7. When David Miranda was stopped at the airport he was carrying a password on a piece of paper. For a lot of people that doesn’t inspire confidence in your methods. [No question.]

8. After Miranda’s detention you said you would be far more aggressive in publishing things about the UK government and they will be sorry for what they did. That was months ago: is something coming down the pipeline?

9. Can you see why those statements were seen as you, Glenn Greenwald, acting as a campaigner and an activist?

10. Do you fear for your safety?

11. Do you feel you could travel to the US or Britain?

12. Are you still in touch with Edward Snowden?

13. How do you know he hasn’t been forced to give up secrets if he’s under Russian protection? You can’t be sure that he hasn’t had to give up something, can you?

14. Given the precariousness of his position, does Snowden really feel all that safe?

15. This is in some ways like a spy film. How did you identify him when you first met him?

16. Do you think he might end up in an American prison?

I’ve been talking about this interview on Twitter today because to me this is a weak form of journalism. It takes common criticisms made of the subject and simply thrusts them at him one after the other to see how he handles it. The basic format is: “People say this about you. What is your response?” Questions 1-7, 9 and 13 are all of that type.

Defenders of this style always say the same thing: Hey, that was a tough interview! People in the public eye should be made to answer their doubters. You may not like it, especially if you’re a fan of the person in question, but that’s our job as journalists: to be tough but fair.

No, your job as a journalist is to decide which of the common criticisms have merit, and ask about those, leaving the meritless to chatrooms. It is also to synthesize new criticisms, and ask about those. It is to advance the conversation, not just replay it. People say these bad things about you– what is your response? is outsourcing the work to other interested parties. It doesn’t make for a tough interview; it makes for a predictable one, easier for the subject to handle. It’s also the cheapest and simplest way to manufacture an “adversarial” atmosphere.

Greenwald’s reaction is here. As he notes, it’s a strange decision to make the interview about the various charges against Greenwald and not what his journalism has uncovered.

UPDATE, OCT. 5. The BBC has now posted to YouTube the video of the entire program on surveillance, which, according to Ian Katz, the editor of BBC Newsnight, is necessary context for understanding the Greenwald interview, which was a part of it. Also, Katz replies to my criticisms here.

In the comments, the former head of BBC Global News, Richard Sambrook, weighs in. “I agree it was an ill-thought through interview and consequently weak.”

 

The production of innocence and the reporting of American politics

"What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting."

2 Oct 2013 7:43 pm 37 Comments

For a certain class of journalists in the United States — a dwindling class, I think — the following holds true:

Alongside the production of news and commentary about American politics they feel compelled to reproduce their own innocence. What I mean by “innocence” is a public showing by professional journalists that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias.

I have written about the production of innocence before

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!

I think it is proper that we call this quest an agenda, even though “agenda” is a loaded and abused term. The innocence agenda undermines the product. News and commentary, the picture we get of what is happening in the nation, can be fatally distorted by the journalist’s need to demonstrate even-handedness. But there’s another problem. In the self image of the professional journalist, nothing can ever come before truthtelling, almost by definition. Because it violates this sacred and absolute rule, the production of innocence is shrouded in denial, defensiveness and mystification. We cannot have a rational conversation with the people who practice it because to admit that they practice it would be, in effect, to resign from their profession. This they refuse to do.

And so silence is the sea on which the entire subject floats. The practitioners don’t defend their practices, but that is the least of it. They won’t identify themselves as practitioners in the first place. They are tenacious in holding to the pattern, but they cannot describe, illuminate or justify the pattern because this would be to concede that “telling it the way it is” is a priority modified by other and greater priorities— like “making it super clear that we take no side.” To admit that is to admit that you are a shill, a mouthpiece.

But here comes the confusing part. For in the production of innocence you are not a shill or mouthpiece for someone else: a company, a political party, a powerful interest… but for a certain image of yourself as “above” all that. You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.

What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation? And what if you are risk adverse? As in the case of Time magazine, the PBS Newshour, NPR and CNN, just to name a few homes for the style I am describing. In a situation like that, you are going to fall back on the easy production of innocence, but you are not going to recognize that this is what you are doing.

I bring up this messy and confusing subject for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone paying attention to political news this week. The shutdown of the Federal government is one of those events where the temptation to advertise your own innocence is almost overwhelming… for a certain kind of journalist.

For more on this problem see James Fallows in the Atlantic: Your False-Equivalence Guide to the Days Ahead.

Also see Dan Froomkin: Shutdown coverage fails Americans.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less…

The Washington Post feels that desire. Here are some of the results:

In The inability to come together to do the right thing, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault

Even before much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday, the players were already staking out their positions in the battle to come: the fight over who was at fault.

President Obama argued that Republicans were to blame, for using a budget bill as a means of extortion to roll back health-care reform. No, the GOP shot back, it was Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who were responsible, for refusing to negotiate.

The Post really feels it, part two:

Shutdown crisis shows Washington breakdown

Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.

The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear.

Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching standoffs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.

Cokie Roberts of NPR feels it, as well. Here is her analysis of the situation:

I think that we’re seeing a real breakdown of government operations in Washington. The inability to come together to do the right thing in terms of the country is really dramatic now. And we’ve seen this before in our history, but this is a period that is very rough.

At Time magazine agendalessness is always on the agenda. Their take:

Shutdown: Obama and Republicans Trade Blame as Deadline Is Crossed

Federal agencies were ordered to beginning shutting down late Monday evening amid finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans as to who was responsible for the United States’ first government stoppage in 17 years.

What unites these treatments is the eagerness to blame both sides. The emphasis is on things like “the inability to come together to do the right thing” and other hyper-symmetrical images like the “shutdown blame game” and “finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans.”

That is the innocence agenda at work. What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting. It still exists, and deserves to be called out, but with the critique of “false equivalence” now a part of the journalist’s daily life and the rise of point-of-view reporting to normal status online, the artifice is shakier than ever. New entrants like the Guardian’s U.S. edition and aggressive newsrooms like ProPublica and McClatchy’s Washington bureau simply don’t treat the production of innocence as important. Eventually it will be seen as dragging the quality of news down, and the best people will be embarrassed to practice it.

So let Cokie Robetts wax on about “the inability to come together to do the right thing.” Meanwhile, the AP’s David Espo described the situation fairly without resorting to claptrap like that.

Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop “appeasing the tea party” and quickly follow suit. Despite the presidential plea – and the urgings of their own leaders – House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation’s three-year-old health care law. (Hat tip, Media Matters.)

When you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need to advertise your own innocence.

PressThink is ten years old. To celebrate I’m asking its readers to de-lurk. Want to play?

Your turn: so who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Tell us.

28 Aug 2013 6:57 pm 147 Comments

It was ten years ago this week that I was writing test posts and putting final touches on the site that would officially launch as PressThink on September 1, 2003. It started with this introduction. The key lines:

I am a press critic, an observer of journalism’s habits, and also a writer trying to make sense of the world. I am interested in the ideas about journalism that journalists work within, and those they feel they can work without. I try to discover the consequences in the world that result from having the kind of press we do.

I call this blog PressThink because that’s the kind of work I do. The title points to forms of thought that identify “journalism” to itself— but also to the habit of not thinking about certain things. The subatomic force that holds the pack of reporters together as they swarm around a story, there’s an example of pressthink. Without it there could be no pack; the pieces would come flying apart.

So that’s who I am, and what I do, and what interests me. But who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? I am borrowing this idea from the excellent science blogger, Ed Yong, who once a year asks readers of his site to de-lurk— that is, introduce themselves, and perhaps say a bit about why the come back. So if you’re willing, hit the comment button and de-lurk yourself.

Meanwhile, over the next few days I am going to post some reflections on ten years of blogging as they occur to me, which means I will also be able to answer questions posted in the comments if you have them. The first one is below:

1. How has doing this blog affected your career?  Last night on Twitter, after I mentioned it had been ten years, Joey Baker asked me how blogging has affected my academic and writing careers. I had never asked myself that, though I always knew that starting PressThink was a huge, life-changing plus. But once Joey asked me of course I started thinking about it.

The biggest effect comes down to the language I find myself within. Everyone is shaped by the language they habitually speak; but with writers it is a lot more so. Blogging forced me to find a language — a writing style — that would include (meaning: not repel) any of the following because blogging showed me that all of the following were possibly interested.

* Working journalists, any kind. (Like, say, Janine Gibson, but there are many more)
* Peers in the press commentary game. (Like, say, Margaret Sullivan, but there are many more…)
* Bloggers whose blogging verges on journalism or comments on the news. (Like Marcy Wheeler)
* Academics interested in the press and its behavior, whatever their discipline. (Like Brad Delong)
* Journalism students or others hoping to make a career of it. (Like Peter Sterne)
* Non-journalists who have to deal with the press as part of their job. (Like Shel Israel)
* People deeply engaged in politics who have to contend with the power of the media. (Like Anne Marie Slaughter)
* Heavy users of journalism, simultaneously fascinated and dissatisfied with the product. (Like Stuart Zechman)
* Ordinary readers who sense that something is amiss. (Like… you!)
* The denizens of digital culture — geeks — who recognize what is shifting in news production. (Like Jillian York)
* Publishers, any kind. (Like Tim O’Reilly)
* Office-holders who have occasion to reflect on the powers of the press (like Tom Watson)
* People in other countries who feel their press is influenced by the American press (Like Mark Colvin.)

All of those people follow me on Twitter, by the way, and vice versa.

Blogging forced me to speak in a language that would always include all of them and never repel any of them. But at the same time, a blog is “the unedited voice of a person,” as Dave Winer, a huge influence on me, once said. The demands of trying to include, not necessarily “everyone,” but certainly everyone on the above list, and at the same time express myself, in an unedited (uncensored) way, the discovery of a language — an intellectual style — that could accomplish all of those things: that is how blogging affected my career, Joey Baker. It forced me to find my way within the limits of a vernacular, which meant keeping in touch with what matters about the press to all of the people in the categories I have listed.

2. Did you know this blog has a theme song? Here it is. That song, more than any other totem I can find, expresses the attitude I try to write with. I’m not saying that my posts are equal to it, only that they are influenced by it.

What about you? Who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Hit the comment button and speak.

To make journalism harder, slower, less secure

That's what the surveillance state is trying to do. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. Only a more activist press, working together, stands a chance of resisting this.

26 Aug 2013 1:37 am 32 Comments

Last week, the novelist and former CIA operative Barry Eisler published one of the most important posts I have read about what’s happening to the press since the Snowden revelations began in early June. In it, he tries to explain why authorities in the UK detained Brazilian national David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow airport and confiscated all the technology he had on him. (Miranda, as everyone following the story knows, is the spouse of The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. He had been acting as a courier, bringing documents on encrypted thumb drives back and forth between Greenwald in Brazil and his collaborator, Laura Poitras, in Germany.)

Eisler’s explanation of this pivotal event is the most persuasive I have seen.

1. Sand in the gears

“Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State,” he writes. You’ve already commandeered the internet for state use and you have most of the world’s communications monitored and stored. Journalists are beginning to realize than none of their means is secure, so they’re retreating to face to face meetings, traveling backwards in technological time to evade your reach. But you find out about one of these meetings: Greenwald’s spouse is visiting Berlin. Eisler explains:

The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication — a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another — can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists’ efforts harder and slower.

Recognizing that you can’t bring journalism to a complete halt, you try to throw sand in the gears. David Miranda was detained and questioned under a terrorism statute in Britain. What’s the connection? As Eisler says, “Part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.” He writes:

To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things: first, button up the primary means of human communication — today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that’s left to the population when everything else has been bugged. Miranda’s detention was part of the second prong of attack. So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden’s leaks. The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options — that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

2. Working together

The day after Eisler’s post appeared, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed found out — and the Guardian then announced — that some of the Snowden documents had been shared with the New York Times, which will report in partnership with the Guardian on some NSA stories. Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, had forced the Guardian editors to halt work in London on the Snowden leaks. But…

Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment which guarantees free speech and in practice prevents the state seeking pre-publication injunctions or “prior restraint”.

It is intended that the collaboration with the New York Times will allow the Guardian to continue exposing mass surveillance by putting the Snowden documents on GCHQ beyond government reach. Snowden is aware of the arrangement.

Sunday night, Ben Smith broke more news: another skilled newsroom, the investigative non-profit site, ProPublica, is also working on Snowden stories with The Guardian. This is the right move. They are trying to make journalism harder, slower and less secure by working together against you. You have to work together against them to publish anyway and put the necessary materials beyond their reach.

As I wrote in my last post, the surveillance state is global, so the struggle to report on its overreach has to move about the globe, as well. Another good sign:

In an open letter to David Cameron published in today’s Observer, the editors of Denmark’s Politiken, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, Norway’s Aftenposten and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat describe the detention of David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as harassment.

They say that the “events in Great Britain over the past week give rise to deep concern” and call on the British prime minister to “reinstall your government among the leading defenders of the free press”.

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers wrote a similar letter to Cameron. They understand this is a global fight. The rest of the British press is only beginning to wake up to it.

3. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in.”

In an appearance last month on Charlie Rose, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden was asked about the “appropriate balance” between secrecy and transparency.Michael_Hayden,_CIA_official_portrait

Hayden said that if it were up to him, he would “keep it all secret” because NSA could best operate that way. But: “I know I live in a modern democracy,” which won’t allow anyone to operate for long without a “national consensus” underpinning the program. You can’t have a national consensus without a national discussion, he admitted. And you can’t have such a discussion “without a significant portion of the citizenry” knowing something about what you’re doing. And so, Hayden said, he had come to accept that the NSA had to “shave points off of our operational effectiveness” in order to become “a bit more transparent to the American people.”

As a former head of the CIA and the NSA, Hayden said he understood that he would be constrained by what American democracy thought acceptable. All he wanted from Congress was clear guidance. “Tell me the box,” he said, making a square with his hands as he talked. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box.” He said he would be “very aggressive,” and probably “get chalk dust on my cleats” but still:

You, the American people, through your elected representatives, give me the field of play and I will play very aggressively in it. As long as you understand what risk you are embracing by keeping me and my colleagues in this box, Charlie, we are good to go. We understand. We follow the guidance of the American people.

Hayden’s sketch of a surveillance state properly constrained by a wary public left a few things out, of course. When the Director of National Intelligence can lie to Congress in open session and keep his job, Hayden’s system has broken down. When United States senators, alarmed about what they are told, cannot alert the American people because of secrecy requirements, Hayden’s “through your elected representatives” becomes a hollow phrase.  Over-classification makes “national consensus” impossible on its face. A “secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans” is not likely to generate much discussion… is it? Hayden’s descriptions sound reasonable — reasonable enough that Charlie Rose didn’t push back on them — but the behavior of the surveillance state doesn’t match up with his soothing words.

WHICH IS WHY WE NEED JOURNALISTS! In fact, we can go further. Without including in the picture an aggressive press that is free to operate without fear or coercion, the surveillance state cannot be made compatible with representative democracy. Even then, it may be impossible.

4. The establishment press is beginning to get it

Barry Eisler concluded his compelling post with this:

The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too. Whether they’ve miscalculated depends on how well they’ve gauged the passivity of the public.

Making journalism harder, slower and less secure, throwing sand in the gears, is fully within the capacity of the surveillance state. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. News stories alone are not going to make it stop. There are signs that the establishment press is beginning to get it. Sharing the work of turning the Snowden documents into news is one. David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is another. “It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom,” Carr wrote. “But they are acting in a more transparent age — they are their own newsrooms in a sense — and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads.”

Only if they can turn a mostly passive public into a more active one can journalists come out ahead in this fight. I know they don’t think of mobilization as their job, and there are good reasons for that, but they didn’t think editors would be destroying hard drives under the gaze of the authorities, either! Journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.

Conspiracy to commit journalism

"If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, they won't succeed by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge."

20 Aug 2013 5:02 pm 16 Comments

Alan-RusbridgerThe mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

                                                                               —Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian

That’s the government telling the editor of a national newspaper: Time’s up, no more of that journalism stuff! We’ll decide when there’s been enough debate. Stop now or we’ll make you stop. Rusbridger’s response: We will continue our careful reporting of the Snowden material. “We just won’t do it from London.” (The Guardian has a U.S. operation based in New York.) From Reuters:

The Guardian’s decision to publicize the government threat – and the newspaper’s assertion that it can continue reporting on the Snowden revelations from outside of Britain – appears to be the latest step in an escalating battle between the news media and governments over reporting of secret surveillance programs.

This battle is global. Just as the surveillance state is an international actor — not one government, but many working together — and just as the surveillance net stretches worldwide because the communications network does too, the struggle to report on the secret system’s overreach is global, as well. It’s the collect-it-all coalition against an expanded Fourth Estate, worldwide.

When Wikileaks first exploded onto the political scene in 2010, I wrote this about it:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”)

Wikileaks was modeling the concept. Now we are seeing different expressions of it every day. “We just won’t do it from London” is one. The collaboration among Edward Snowden, an American exile living in Russia, filmmaker Laura Poitras, an American living in Berlin, and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, an American living in Brazil— that’s another. A few days ago, when Greenwald’s spouse, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow airport by the UK branch of the surveillance state, Greenwald naturally alerted The Guardian’s lawyers in the UK, but he also alerted officials in the Brazilian government, who brought pressure to bear through the foreign ministry.

This tells us something. The battle I referred to is not a simple matter of the state vs. civilians. It’s not government vs. the press, either. It’s the surveillance-over-everything forces within governments (plus the politicians and journalists who identify with them) vs. everyone who opposes their overreach: investigative journalists and sources, especially, but also couriers (like David Miranda), cryptographers and technologists, free speech lawyers, funders, brave advertisers, online activists, sympathetic actors inside a given government, civil society groups like Amnesty International, bloggers to amplify the signal and, of course, readers. Lots of readers, the noisy kind, who share and help distribute the work.

This type of sunlight coalition — large and small pieces, loosely joined — is a countervailing power to the security forces, the people who are utterly serious when they say: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more,” the same people who, as Bruce Schneier has written, “commandeered the internet” for their use because, viewed from a certain angle, it’s the best machine ever made for spying on the population.

If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, it won’t be by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge. This attitude was perfectly captured by Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, who shut down his email service when the surveillance state demanded his submission. “I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore,” he said.

Sunlight wins when the deeds exposed turn out to lack legitimacy under the greater scrutiny they receive because of the exposure. That can only happen through open argument over known facts. The argument is always about the same thing: what is truly in the public interest, and what violates justice, decency, common sense, national conscience, the requirements of a democracy. As Rusbridger told the BBC:

“If they were to arrest David Miranda in Heathrow car park they would have to use bits of the law which have checks and balances to protect journalistic material, among other things, but by doing it in a transit lounge they are operating in a kind of stateless way where they can interrogate someone for nine hours, seize whatever they want, under rules that are about terrorism. Once you start conflating terrorism and journalism, as a country I think you’re in some trouble.”

A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Those who would expose the misdeeds of an agency like the NSA need good arguments, not just good sources and good lawyers. Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money. It has to speak to ends that are almost as universal as the emotion of fear, an always-on power source for the “collect it all” consortium.

Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential. All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us about, “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back?” Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post asked Rusbridger about that. His answer:

“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.

That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.

“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.

Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

You can find all the pieces I’ve written on Snowden, the press and the surveillance state here.

Public radio’s The World interviewed me about this post. Listen here. (It’s 5:41.)

John Naughton in the UK reacts to this post: Democracy as a ‘game.’

The big question, to my mind, is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance deemed essential by the national security state is compatible with democracy.

The answer I’m heading towards is “No”.

Former CIA agent turned novelist Barry Eisler tries to explain why David Miranda got stopped at Heathrow by the UK authorities. His answer: to make further journalism about the Snowden material more difficult. I think he’s got it.

The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication — a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another — can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists’ efforts harder and slower.

Does this sort of “deny and disrupt” campaign sound familiar? It should: you’ve seen it before, deployed against terror networks. That’s because part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.

“If you support a free press publishing leaked state secrets you are apparently condoning terrorism. If you don’t object to his detention loudly, you are condoning the secret state.” On CNN.com, former BBC executive Richard Sambrook reflects on the hardening of positions.

Social media, advocacy journalism, the need to define and claim the narrative and to be heard leaves little room for middle ground, but it is there that this conflict will be resolved. In that gray area, the ethical bridge between these positions will have to be rebuilt.

My contribution to Sambrook’s bridging project in this post:  “Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique.”

Mark Ambinder, national security reporter and columnist, explains his reasons to be troubled the NSA, and, in a separate column, why concerns about it are overblown: 5 reasons the NSA scandal ain’t all that. “I really do think tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations,” he writes. Conor Friedersdorf isn’t buying it.

The Press Gazette in Britain asks why newspapers in the UK are largely letting The Guardian go it alone, and not jumping fully into the fray.

When you’re in a Fourth Estate situation

As things stand today, the Fourth Estate is a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some do not. Some who have it are part of the institutional press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

15 Aug 2013 7:49 pm 13 Comments

“I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.”

Those are the poignant words of Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, a secure email service that he voluntarily shut down when faced with some sort of demand from the U.S. government to reveal user information. The precise nature of that demand he cannot talk about for fear of being thrown in jail, perhaps the best example we now have for how the surveillance state undoes the First Amendment. But we know that Lavabit was used by Edward Snowden to communicate with the outside world when he was stuck in the Moscow airport. So use your imagination!

If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore… is a perfect description of a “Fourth Estate situation.” That’s when we need a journalist to put hidden facts to light and bring public opinion into play, which then changes the equation for people in power operating behind the veil. If it doesn’t happen, an illegitimate state action will persist. “My hope is that, you know, the media can uncover what’s going on, without my assistance,” Levison said. He’s like a whistleblower who will go to jail if he actually uses his whistle. All he can do is give truncated interviews that stop short of describing the pressure he is under.

At least one thing is clear: Snowden’s determination “to embolden others to step forward,” which I wrote about in my last post, is starting to work. Ladar Levison is proof.

This week the New York Times magazine published an amazing account of the Fourth Estate situation that Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald found themselves in, once they were contacted by Edward Snowden. The author, Peter Maass, included this:

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

The idea of the press as the “fourth estate” is usually traced to English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881.) Here he is, writing at a time when journalists were newly arrived on the political stage:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. It used to be that the only way to “speak to the whole nation” was through the major media channels that reached everyone. The Fourth Estate became the editors and reporters who worked in Big Media newsrooms. But as Peter Maass pointed out, Poitras and Greenwald don’t operate that way. They make alliances with the press establishment to get their stories out. If necessary, they will go it alone. Greenwald raises his own money from readers who support what he does, as he explained in a June 4th column in The Guardian:

Ever since I began political writing, I’ve relied on annual reader donations to enable me to do the journalism I want to do: first when I wrote at my own Blogspot page and then at Salon. Far and away, that has been the primary factor enabling me to remain independent – to be unconstrained in what I can say and do – because it means I’m ultimately accountable to my readers, who don’t have an agenda other than demanding that I write what I actually think, that the work I produce be unconstrained by institutional orthodoxies and without fear of negative reaction from anyone. It is also reader support that has directly funded much of the work I do, from being able to have research assistants and other needed resources to avoiding having to do the kind of inconsequential work that distracts from that which I think is most necessary and valuable.

For that reason, when I moved my blog from Salon to the Guardian, the Guardian and I agreed that I would continue to rely in part on reader support. Having this be part of the arrangement, rather than exclusively relying on the Guardian paying to publish the column, was vital to me. It’s the model I really believe in.

This was the last thing he wrote for the Guardian before the Snowden story took over his life, but he dropped a hint of what was coming. “I’ve spent all of this week extensively traveling and working continuously on what will be a huge story: something made possible by being at the Guardian but also by my ability to devote all of my time and efforts to projects like this one.”

The point I’m driving at is not that the institutionalized press is no longer needed, or no longer powerful. Greenwald clearly benefits from being a Guardian journalist. The Guardian has other reporters it can put on the story. It has editors to save writers from errors and misjudgments. It pays for plane tickets and lawyers. It has global reach. These are huge advantages.

But people who find themselves in a Fourth Estate situation — “If the public knew what power was doing, power would not be allowed to do it anymore” — have power themselves now. If they have the goods, if they have the will, if they have “a tongue which others will listen to,” they can speak to the nation. And some will! The Fourth Estate is really a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some don’t. Some who have it are part of the press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

A Fourth Estate situation has its own strange and radiating power. People caught up in one will take enormous risks. They will sacrifice their freedom. They will crash the company they spent years building. They will defy the state. They will do a lot to bring the hidden facts to light. Working together, sources, journalists and readers may soon publish a blockbuster story without the institutional press being involved at all.

Again, I’m not saying we don’t need The Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, El País, O Globo, the BBC, the CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. We definitely do. But they are not the Fourth Estate. If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore. Everyone who tries to act on that tense situation: they, together, are the Fourth Estate. (Senator Ron Wyden, for example.)

I believe Bruce Schneier was correct when he wrote in the Atlantic this week that the U.S. government has “commandeered the internet.” He urged the big technology companies to fight back. But even if they don’t, others will. And when they make that decision, they will pick up the tools of journalism and try to alert the public. If the press won’t help them, they will go it alone. Wise professionals in journalism will understand this, and select accordingly.