How free is the free press?

In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures, that's the question everyone is asking

(Eileen Barroso)

On January 30, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and CJR hosted a lively panel discussion on “Journalism After Snowden.” The J-school’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and CJR are partnering on a yearlong research project about the wide-ranging implications of the Snowden revelations, and the panel event kicked it off.

Tow Center Director Emily Bell moderated the panel. Janine Gibson, editor in chief of Guardian US, gave a behind-the-scenes account of breaking the very first stories from the “Summer of Snowden.” New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson spoke about the two papers’ collaboration on digging through the documents and keeping them safe. Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman spoke up from the audience to attempt to parse the Director of National Intelligence’s chilling statements about Edward Snowden’s “accomplices,” a term which many took as a reference to reporters and editors.

The Guardian’s outside counsel, David Schulz, and Cass Sunstein, a member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, also provided legal and policy-based perspectives on what the Snowden affair might mean for Americans’ right to privacy—and journalists’ right to do their job.

Steve Coll
Dean of the Columbia Journalism School

“The Snowden affair has sparked an unprecedented debate—about digital privacy, the pursuit of national security after September 11, and the power of the state. It’s also sparked an important and continuing debate about Constitutional rights in the United States and globally, governing the press and free expression. But it’s also changed journalism, and is in the process of changing journalism, and has raised profound questions about the practice of journalism that feel very unsettled. . . . These include: shield laws and subpoena defense, the sort of frontline experience of reporters under pressure in their relations with confidential sources, the very viability of a regime of source protection in the digital age, how to define and spread sound practices of digital security, and the growing professional-amateur divide in journalism caused by the deinstitutionalization of many reporting functions.”

Emily Bell
Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia

“I think we can all agree that Edward Snowden has done us a favor. . . . The fact is, we’ve had oversight, and oversight has failed. Where oversight has failed, a whistleblower and journalism have succeeded. And yet, the system is still wanting to punish, if you will, the one thing which has led to some sort of transparency and clarity.”

Janine Gibson
Editor in chief, Guardian US

“The thing that was completely different about this story: You know, as journalists, we all understand that at some point somebody might threaten you in the means of trying to get you to reveal a source, and it’s a sort of tenet that you learn at places like Columbia that you would go to prison to protect your source. [Snowden] never thought his identity wouldn’t come out. [Because of] the very nature of the story, he knew exactly how fast they would be able to track him down and identify him, as soon as the revelations appeared. . . . But what that means for the journalists, is instead of the position that journalists find themselves in, where they’re being threatened with prosecution over identifying their source, we’re now being put in the position of something even more chilling, of being co-conspirators. This sort of basic fact of, ‘Who’s your source?’ ‘Well, I’m not going to tell you’ has become, ‘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 that should be profoundly worrying, because that’s not going to stop. That is a ‘journalism after Snowden’ problem.”

Jill Abramson
Executive editor, The New York Times

“During the Obama administration, there have been seven criminal leak investigations, more than twice all of these investigations in all of history before President Obama took office. This has had a profound effect on journalists who cover national security. . . . This seems to be, if not a stated policy, a reality where journalism about sensitive national security issues that I see as vitally in the public interest, is effectively being criminalized. And a real freeze is setting in, in what had been to this point, I think, a healthy discourse between sources and journalists.”

Cass Sunstein
Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School

“By a happy coincidence of language, the word ‘security’ has at least two meanings, two of which are crucial here. And they both have a Latin root, which means ‘free from danger, safe.’ And that entails both not being blown up, or at risk of being blown up, and also feeling that your persons, papers, effects, etcetera are safe from government intrusion. And our view is that these two forms of security, which have the same linguistic root, can both be safeguarded, and it’s a big mistake to think that in a free society, one can be pursued at the expense of another.”

Barton Gellman
Reporter, The Washington Post

(Gellman has reported many of the Snowden scoops. He was not a panelist but was invited to speak from the audience.)
“Besides the actual risk of prosecution . . . there’s an investigative issue that very much relates to the ability to do national security journalism now. Almost everything you want to write about, if you are writing about diplomacy or intelligence or defense, is classified; everything but the press release and the news conference is classified. That’s just the way the US government works. There may be more classified information now than there is open-source information on the planet.”

David Schulz
Partner at Levine, Sullivan, Koch, & Schulz, LLP

“With the technology that we have today, when you acknowledge what the government has and what it can do, you don’t need to subpoena a reporter anymore. There is an ability to find out who gave out any information. And we should all be very concerned about that, because we need whistleblowers. You can look at a number of stories just in recent years—secret cia prisons, waterboarding, abuse of patients at Walter Reed hospital—you go on and on and on, important stories that only come from classified information. And if we don’t have a mechanism that allows for whistleblowers, our whole society is going to suffer.” 

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner