Frankly, these days I’m embarrassed by my craft, but every once in a while, I consider it a real privilege to be associated with journalism. This is one of those times. The Pulitzer Prize, which is awarded by those in news to those in news, recognized this year a team that exemplified the highest ideals of what we do. Or are supposed to do.
By now you’ve guessed that I’m referring to the Pulitzer bestowed on The Washington Post and The Guardian for extensive reporting done about Edward Snowden’s leaks that revealed massive surveillance of just about everybody on Earth. It even swept in many of the planet’s leaders.
Predictably, those in and around the American national-security apparatus are apoplectic. They had even lied about the extent of their cyberspying, so they were understandably furious that they had been caught. New York Republican Congressman Peter King often has been one of their faithful apologists on Capitol Hill. He called the media who have written and broadcast the stories “accomplices.” As soon as the latest honors were announced, King fired off a tweet: “Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace.”
Snowden himself is a fugitive, hiding out in Russia. He faces probable charges that could land him in prison for life if he returned to the United States, at the very same time he’s in the running for a Nobel Prize. In London, The Guardian’s offices were raided by authorities, and the intimidation aimed at news organizations here to try to stifle publication has been intense. And fortunately, unsuccessful.
Don’t we claim to be a democracy that is chosen by an “informed electorate”? Don’t we need to know when the intelligence system secretly monitors so many aspects of our lives?
Our top spies insist that it’s all necessary. They cite many cases in which only through use of their sweeps have they prevented acts of violent terrorism against the U.S. When pushed for details, they refuse, saying they can’t reveal names or tactics. Unfortunately for them, many of their accounts have come to light and are now exposed as gross exaggerations or outright fiction.
How useful is this blanket intelligence when we learn that a large number of al-Qaida leaders just held a gathering in plain sight? We know this because they released a video. These are people who are marked for assassination by the CIA, but apparently our spies were entirely surprised about plans for the get-together. And let’s be honest, they weren’t able to prevent the Boston Marathon bombers, even with information well ahead of time about the perpetrators from the Russians.
And somehow, Snowden was able to abscond with millions of files, stealing them right under the noses of National Security Agency managers. So yes, it’s easy to understand why they and their minions are hacked off. To put it mildly, all the stories have raised questions about their competence and whether their programs have crossed way beyond the line that separates homeland security and homeland intrusiveness.
We can thank The Washington Post, The Guardian and the other media who withstood heavy pressure to hold our leaders accountable. That is what we’re supposed to do. That is what we often don’t do anymore, focusing instead on cheap-shot politics, glitz, glamor and other mindless stories that spew out a lot of information, but don’t inform.
These papers are upholding the tradition that in modern times has allowed us to know about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, to name just a couple of massive disclosures that call our government into question. Of course, since then, we’ve been treated to one “Gate” after another as we apply the suffix to just about any scandal, real or contrived. In the process, we demean our role, which is to make sure we know what those we entrust with our country are doing with their powers. The Post and The Guardian deserve the Pulitzer recognition. And our thanks.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.