More unnerving is the way in which various members of the media have failed to challenge the official line. Nobody should be surprised to see the New York Post running the headline: “ROGUES’ GALLERY: SNOWDEN JOINS LONG LIST OF NOTORIOUS, GUTLESS TRAITORS FLEEING TO RUSSIA.” But where are Snowden’s defenders? As of Monday, the editorial pages of the Times and the Washington Post, the two most influential papers in the country, hadn’t even addressed the Obama Administration’s decision to charge Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of theft.
If convicted on all three counts, the former N.S.A. contract-systems administrator could face thirty years in jail. On the Sunday-morning talk shows I watched, there weren’t many voices saying that would be an excessive punishment for someone who has performed an invaluable public service. And the person who did aggressively defend Snowden’s actions, Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian blogger who was one of the reporters to break the story, found himself under attack. After suggesting that Greenwald had “aided and abetted” Snowden, David Gregory, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” asked, “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
After being criticized on Twitter, Gregory said that he wasn’t taking a position on Snowden’s actions—he was merely asking a question. I’m all for journalists asking awkward questions, too. But why aren’t more of them being directed at Hayden and Feinstein and Obama, who are clearly intent on attacking the messenger?
Snowden took classified documents from his employer, which surely broke the law. But his real crime was confirming that the intelligence agencies, despite their strenuous public denials, have been accumulating vast amounts of personal data from the American public. The puzzle is why so many media commentators continue to toe the official line. About the best explanation I’ve seen came from Josh Marshall, the founder of T.P.M., who has been one of Snowden’s critics. In a post that followed the first wave of stories, Marshall wrote, “At the end of the day, for all its faults, the U.S. military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does.”
I suspect that many Washington journalists, especially the types who go on Sunday talk shows, feel the way Marshall does, but perhaps don’t have his level of self-awareness. It’s not just a matter of defending the Obama Administration, although there’s probably a bit of that. It’s something deeper, which has to do with attitudes toward authority. Proud of their craft and good at what they do, successful journalists like to think of themselves as fiercely independent. But, at the same time, they are part of the media and political establishment that stands accused of ignoring, or failing to pick up on, an intelligence outrage that’s been going on for years. It’s not surprising that some of them share Marshall’s view of Snowden as “some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law.”
Mea culpa. Having spent almost eighteen years at The New Yorker, I’m arguably just as much a part of the media establishment as David Gregory and his guests. In this case, though, I’m with Snowden—not only for the reasons that Drake enumerated but also because of an old-fashioned and maybe naïve inkling that journalists are meant to stick up for the underdog and irritate the powerful. On its side, the Obama Administration has the courts, the intelligence services, Congress, the diplomatic service, much of the media, and most of the American public. Snowden’s got Greenwald, a woman from Wikileaks, and a dodgy travel document from Ecuador. Which side are you on?