In a larger sense, though, what information is or is not classified, and what legal protections reporters may or may not have, are beside the point—as these NSA stories have revealed. Schulz responded to Gellman’s concerns with this frightening truth: “The technology that we have today, you don’t need to subpoena a reporter anymore. There’s an ability to find out who gave out any information,” said Schulz. “And we should all be very concerned about that, because we all need whistleblowers…. If we don’t have a mechanism that allows for whistleblowers, our whole society is going to suffer.”
That was a persistent and important theme that the panel kept returning to—that, besides journalists’ legal protections, equivalent protections should be extended to the people who risk their livelihoods, and lives, to bring this information to light in the first place. Gibson said Snowden had “an eerie prescience,” and described his sense of urgency in getting as many NSA stories published before the government, and his critics, tried to make the story about him and his traitorous intentions.
Bell agreed: “Where oversight has failed, a whistleblower and journalism has succeeded,” she said. “And yet the system is still wanting to punish, if you like, the one thing which has led to transparency and clarity.”
“But that should be completely unsurprising,” Abramson jumped in, citing the fact that the current administration has investigated seven “criminal leaks,” more than twice the number of such investigations, based on a law passed in 1917, pursued before President Obama took office. That such legal battles were still being fought by James Rosen, of Fox News, and James Risen, of the Times, were mentioned several times throughout the evening.
Gibson also highlighted the new and alarming ways in which the Snowden story has caused certain threats from the establishment to escalate.
“Instead of the position that journalists find themselves in where they’re being threatened with prosecution over identifying their sources, we are now being put in the position of something even more chilling—of being ‘co-conspirators,’” said Gibson. The accusation is now “‘You’re part of a conspiracy, possibly involving the KGB, or maybe China. Because the ordinary way of chilling journalism won’t work in this case. And I think this should be profoundly worrying, because that’s not going to stop. That is a ‘Journalism After Snowden’ problem.”
At one point, Bell asked the panel, “I think we can all agree that Edward Snowden has done us a favor. Do we have general agreement on that?”
“I have no comment on that,” answered Cass Sunstein, the fourth panelist, who participated in the President’s outside review group that recently released a report proposing changes to the NSA surveillance program. “We have a 300-page report, and the word ‘Snowden’ doesn’t appear.” Later, Sunstein also said that he did not think that the members of the review group would refer to Snowden as “a whistleblower” at all. (So what is he, then?)
After a substantial question-and-answer period from the audience, Bell ended the night by asking the panelists for their magic-wand wish for what journalism would ideally look like in this post-Snowden age. Sunstein named internet freedom, and Schultz imagined an internationally agreed-upon standard for individual privacy rights.
The two editors had more profession-specific requests.
“More great stories,” said Abramson.
“No prosecution for journalists,” said Gibson. This was met by spontaneous applause.
The video of Thursday’s event is up online in full, here.