To the Snowden story system a crowning Pulitzer might have gone

The Washington Post and the Guardian won the big prize: the Pulitzer for public service. There's no prize for the network of journalists and newsrooms that brought the surveillance story forward.

14 Apr 2014 3:45 pm 7 Comments

As the New York Times reported:

Though the citation did not name specific reporters, the work was led by Barton Gellman at the Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill at the Guardian, and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and journalist who worked with both newspapers.

And people will debate that— not naming the reporters. Just as they debate the handling of the Snowden documents by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. (Disclosure: I am an advisor to First Look Media.)

Here I share some thoughts about the Snowden story — or story system — that go beyond what the prizes can recognize.

The Pulitzers are first national (they honor U.S. journalism), second institutional (the entries are submitted by a newspaper or online newsroom) and third individual (writers with bylines are typically named, though not always.)

The Snowden story is an international enterprise, involving the press, and press law, in the UK, Germany, France, Brazil, Canada and the United States for starters. It involves collaboration and alliance among freelance journalists with their own standing (Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras especially, but also to a degree Barton Gellman) who are contracting with institutions and their unique strengths: the Guardian and the Washington Post won the Pulitzer but there are many others: the New York Times and ProPublica (with whom The Guardian shared some of the Snowden documents) Der Spiegel in Germany, O Globo in Brazil, CBC in Canada— and more. There’s no Pulitzer for that.

“Closest to those whose privacy has been invaded.”

Greenwald has said this about the strategy that he and Poitras followed in reporting out the Snowden files:

I reported on most of them under a freelance contract with the Guardian, and she has reported on most under similar contracts with the NYT, the Washington Post, the Guardian and especially der Spiegel. But we also have partnered with multiple media outlets around the world – in Germany, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Spain, Holland, Mexico, and Norway, with more shortly to come – to ensure that the documents are reported on in those places where the interest level is highest and are closest to those individuals whose privacy has been invaded.

In my view that decision — through collaboration, release stories in the press vehicle “closest to those individuals whose privacy has been invaded” — won the Pulitzer today.

“We did not have to do our reporting from London.”

At crucial moments, the “networked” part of the surveillance story kept it from being contained by the authorities. The most dramatic is when Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian told the men from the UK government that he would comply with their demands to destroy the computer hard drives containing the Snowden files. But:

I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

In a sense it’s that moment that deserved the Pulitzer today.

The international press sphere

When the Guardian shared some of the Snowden documents with ProPublica and the New York Times, there was a logic to spreading the wealth and joining forces in this way. They had worked it out over Wikileaks. Rusbridger:

[It] happened just after we took possession of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the UK. America, for all its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope, unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.

In a sense it has been the international press sphere, an alliance of newsrooms on several continents, operating as publisher of the Snowden files. And that way of doing it won a Pulitzer today.

“I wish Snowden had come to me.”

In its entirety the Snowden story system is a hard thing to hang a prize on. But we know what some of its principles are. In November of last year Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (there is no larger figure in Pulitzer lore) complained about the way the story system was working. Snowden had made a mistake by not coming to him, Woodward said. He, Bob, would have known how to bring order and narrative to the material. Incredibly, he argued for keeping Snowden’s identity a secret, as if this was up to the great reporter with his prize source to rule upon and not Snowden as a public actor himself.

Gellman reacted swiftly to Woodward’s Sun King delusiuons. He did it in public, with no hesitation about taking on an icon of the Post:

“I can’t explain why Bob would insult the source who brought us this extraordinary story or the exemplary work of his colleagues in pursuing it,” Gellman said in an email to HuffPost Thursday.

“The ‘others’ he dismissed include [The Washington Post’s] Greg Miller, Julie Tate, Carol Leonnig, Ellen Nakashima, Craig Whitlock, Craig Timberg, Steven Rich and Ashkan Soltani — all of whom are building on the Snowden archive with me to land scoop after scoop,” Gellman continued. “I won’t get into why Snowden came to me or didn’t come to Bob. But the idea of keeping Snowden anonymous, or of waiting for one ‘coherent’ story, suggests that Bob does not understand my source or the world he lived in.”

Gellman knew that for this story only coalitions of journalists with sources could get it done. For me, that moment of push back also got a Pulitzer today.


Out of all the headlines this one also comes from the deep end of the pool of storytelling: The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor

Well put, Jay. It took a network to tell this story… a connected network. To have reduced the Snowden revelations to single narrative would have been disingenuous, a true failing of journalism.

There are many “heros” behind this Pulitzer, kudos to you for bringing some of those names into the sunlight.

It might not be unreasonable to conclude that this “system” worked because there was already a public market for the story. As Greenwald said “to ensure that the documents are reported on in those places where the interest level is highest…”. Where would that story be if there were not a major public receptive to the idea (reinforced by entertainment media) that secretive governmental agencies are a threat? Would this strategy work if that preconditioned audience were not there and, along with building the narrative these reporters would have to support themselves while building the audience for their narrative?

Good point.

For those truly engaged with this story, it is interesting to compare the Pulitzer citations:

Awarded to The Washington Post for its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.


Awarded to The Guardian US for its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.

The Post helped the public understand. The Guardian sparked a debate.

Here’s some commentary on the difference, by a skeptic who thinks the Pulitzers debased themselves with this award.

Clayton Burns says:

Benjamin Wittes requires you to participate in Facebook to comment at his blog. So much for integrity or even common sense.

I am not going to participate in Facebook in any way ever. Anyone who requires it gets no respect from me.

I was willing to consider his argument, but now I am going to dismiss it out of hand.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that Bob Woodward would have been clueless about the security technology required to communicate with Snowden. This is not 1972.