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The MSM and the Snowden Affair: Where True Loyalty Lies | The Nation

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The MSM and the Snowden Affair: Where True Loyalty Lies

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Glenn Greenwald. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)


Every so often, a single event so galvanizes members of the mainstream media that they end up revealing things about themselves that tend to be obscured by their typical, surface-level coverage. The Glenn Greenwald/Edward Snowden NSA bombshell is one such story. Among its important contributions, it demonstrates just how deeply the most prominent members of the MSM identify with the powerful officials they profess to hold accountable, rather than the public they are supposed to inform.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Exhibit A took place when NBC’s David Gregory, host of television’s most influential news program, Meet the Press, asked The Guardian’s Greenwald, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

Consider this: Greenwald’s “crime,” to the best of Gregory’s (or anyone else’s) knowledge, was reporting leaks of classified national security material, something that it would not be an exaggeration to say happens almost every day in Washington (and is nearly unavoidable, given our classification system’s ridiculous excess). When Bob Woodward published his hagiographic Bush at War in 2002, the reporter explained that he was given access to the deeply classified minutes of National Security Council meetings, among myriad other secret decisions and intelligence data. This shocked even Woodward, who observed, “Certainly Richard Nixon would not have allowed reporters to question him like that. Bush’s father wouldn’t allow it. Clinton wouldn’t allow it.” Did anyone in Washington suggest that Bob Woodward should be charged with a crime?

Reporters in these same higher media precincts have also engaged in a rash of irresponsible speculation. For instance, NBC News reporter Chuck Todd wondered, sans evidence, whether “Glenn Greenwald, you know—how much was he involved in the plot? It’s one thing as a source, but what, what was his role—did he have a role beyond simply being a receiver of this information?” Jane Perlez and Keith Bradsher of The New York Times reported: “Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said that they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel”—a notion that would strengthen suspicions of alleged “espionage.” No knowledge, no evidence and no names were offered. Soon enough, this story was being repeated pretty much everywhere.

In The Washington Post, veteran national security reporter Walter Pincus speculated about Snowden’s motives in a brief column that managed to contain three factual errors, all of which tended to incriminate either Snowden or Greenwald. Though Greenwald pointed them out immediately, it took the Post a full thirty-six hours to correct its website and address the errors. Now, Pincus is 80 and not, apparently, all that web-savvy. He is also one of the most distinguished national security reporters of the past half-century, and he was perhaps the only person on the entire Post news staff to demonstrate proper skepticism toward the Bush administration during the run-up to its Iraq invasion. But his allegiance—together with his
sourcing—tends to be with the intelligence community (which is one reason he was able to resist the lies coming from Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.). Here again, one can see how easily the rules of good journalism are bent when it comes to figures outside the Beltway’s sacred circle.

This deference toward the permanent power centers of Washington is not shared by the country at large. A Quinnipiac poll in early July found that a 45–40 percent plurality of Americans believe that the Obama administration has “gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties” compared with those who said it had “not gone far enough to adequately protect the country.” The same poll found that a 55–34 percent majority described Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a “traitor.”

Within the punditocracy, these numbers likely skew heavily in the opposite direction. Washington Post liberal pundit Richard Cohen called Snowden “a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood” (whatever that means, it’s clearly not a compliment). His colleague David Ignatius wrote, “Snowden looks these days more like an intelligence defector, seeking haven in a country hostile to the United States, than a whistleblower.” He failed to note that in this country, Snowden was facing espionage charges and possible inhumane treatment of the type meted out to Bradley Manning. NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell complained that Snowden “had a lot of very provocative, sarcastic, sardonic comments about the Patriot Act” and so must be “a very, a really edgy guy.” Meanwhile, New York Times wise man David Brooks blamed Snowden for “the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism [and] the fraying of the social fabric.”

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It’s a funny country, America. You can launch a destructive, expensive, self-defeating and dishonest war that (predictably) leads to hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths, millions of refugees, trillions of wasted dollars, an explosion of global hatred, etc., and apparently everything’s still cool. But expose the behavior of the US government behind closed doors and suddenly you’ve got cynicism, corrosive distrust and a frayed social fabric…

Edward Snowden, like Bradley Manning, broke the law and did so knowing he would likely be punished. But the inhumane treatment of Manning and the phony espionage charges against Snowden say more about our permanent government’s fear of exposure than about the “crimes” each man has committed.

Think there's no upside to aiding and abetting mass murder? Alterman sees it otherwise for the Reagan-era officials who enabled the Guatemalan genocide.

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