The only thing more aggravating than Christmas shopping ads before the Fourth of July — yes, I saw one over the weekend — is a journalist making “best of the year” lists with six months still to go. I’m not going to go quite that far, but I am willing to declare a sure winner for The Most Tedious Phrase of 2013:
“The real story on Edward Snowden is the NSA spying he revealed, not — ”
Almost anything can follow: Why he did it. How he discovered it. Where he’s going. What the United States can (or should) do about it. One of the most vexing developments of the age of digital journalism is the breeding of a generation of self-important scolds who mask their political agenda by calling it media criticism.
Aside from the occasional Kardashian sighting, there’s almost no such thing as a one-note news story. The news ripples outward, taking different directions and acquiring new implications as it’s reshaped by new disclosures and unanticipated events. Watergate turned out to be about much more than a third-rate burglary.
Politicians and PR men, understandably, ahbor the unpredictability of the news and invest prodigious efforts in taming it. You could fill an entire dictionary with terms like spinning the story and staying on message that they’ve coined over a couple of decades to describe their efforts at control.
But in the past few weeks we’ve encountered a new and depressing phenomenon: journalists themselves trying to contain the news. A virtual tsunami of commentaries and op-ed pieces has argued that the only real story about NSA leaker (or — I can already see the emails zooming my way! — whistleblower) Snowden is the government spying he disclosed. That is, “real” journalists will let the source define the story and not muck it up with their impudent questions.
That is, flatly, absurd. Like any breaking story, Snowden’s activities have inevitably thrown off some confetti that is stupid or irrelevant. (Put his girlfriend’s lingerie modeling right at the top of the list.) But to say there’s just one real story here is to be willfully blind.
I think Snowden’s revelation that we’re being spied on by our own government is, on balance, a positive thing. But it leads directly to any number of other questions, not all of which necessarily resonate with the progressive sensibilities of the journalists trying to dictate the story’s focus:
• Who else besides reporters is Snowden talking to? Glenn Greenwald, the London Guardian columnist who broke the NSA story, told The New York Times that of “thousands” of documents Snowden made off with, only “dozens” were interesting.
But just because something looks dull to Greenwald doesn’t mean spymasters in China or Russia might not find it useful for, say, helping decode U.S. documents they’ve captured but haven’t been able to read. Has Snowden shown them anything during his time in Moscow and Hong Kong?
• Can we keep secrets anymore? Snowden’s dump of highly classified U.S. documents follows by just three years another major breach of American security, that of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks. In an age when thousands of documents can be pilfered from government files with a couple of clicks of a mouse, is government secrecy an oxymoron?
• J ust how much do we believe in free trade? Every White House of the past two decades — including those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — has worked overtime to convince Latin America that free trade is not only good economic policy but the bedrock of a globalized world.
If Snowden winds up getting asylum in Ecuador, will we do exactly what we’ve always lectured Latin American countries never to do — hold trade policy hostage to domestic politics by blocking the $4.1 billion in exports Ecuador sends to the United States each year?
• How come nobody’s been fired? The government spends godawful amounts of money on collecting intelligence, then classifying and protecting it. (The unclassified budget for intelligence alone is over $75 billion.) Yet a relatively low-level guy like Snowden was able to penetrate the defenses and fill up four laptop computers before flitting off to China.
Who created a system where that could happen? What are we doing to him? What are we doing to fix all this? Though maybe I should rest easy on that one. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander assured ABC recently: “We’ve changed the passwords.”