Lessons from PRISM: Sometimes it’s better not to be part of the media establishment

There are a host of questions surrounding the NSA surveillance program known as PRISM, and no doubt many lessons to be learned about how and why the government engages in this kind of activity — and how much tech companies like Google and Facebook have to do with that behavior (for more background, see this roundup of what we know so far). But from a media perspective, one of the more fascinating aspects of the story is that much of it was broken and reported by Glenn Greenwald, who writes for the U.S. arm of the British newspaper The Guardian.

Although it’s difficult to discern the precise motives of the leaker (who revealed himself on the weekend as 29-year-old former CIA technical staffer Edward Snowden), the fact that both Greenwald and the Guardian are to some extent “outsiders” may have helped them land what could be one of the biggest national-security stories since Watergate. And the stories — a series that Greenwald says has only just begun — will undoubtedly burnish the Guardian‘s reputation in the U.S., not to mention its web traffic.

Triumph of the blogger as journalist

As journalism professor Jay Rosen noted on Twitter, if nothing else, Greenwald’s repeated scoops on this particular story are perhaps the best possible response to the long-running debate in professional journalism circles over whether “bloggers” should be thought of as journalists. Although the debate should have died out long ago, the term is still seen by some as a pejorative label (Greenwald was a lawyer and author before he became a blogger).

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Even the New York Times chose to refer to Greenwald primarily as a blogger in its profile of him following the PRISM story, something the newspaper’s own public editor said she felt was somewhat dismissive of his accomplishments. But while Greenwald may not have been trained as a journalist, he clearly has enough skills in that area to put together a compelling news story — and told the Times that he uses his legal training to make sure the holes in a story are filled.

Being a blogger isn’t the only way in which Greenwald stands apart from the members of the traditional media establishment: Unlike most, he has been an unabashed supporter of former Army private Bradley Manning — who is currently on trial for giving classified information to WikiLeaks — and of the value that comes from leaking such information in the public interest. It’s not hard to see how that might have attracted Edward Snowden.

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Greenwald is also a literal outsider as well, since he lives most of the time in Brazil with his partner. The two can’t move to the United States as a couple because the U.S. government doesn’t recognize same-sex couples when one partner is applying for a residency visa.

Outsiders sometimes get the scoops


And finally, The Guardian itself is something of an outsider in the U.S. media, and certainly when it comes to covering Washington or national security and military topics. Although the British media entity has had a U.S. unit based in New York city for almost two years now (something editor Janine Gibson and others continually reminded other media outlets of, every time they referred to it somewhat dismissively as a British newspaper) it is still seen by many as the arm of a British news outlet.

In some ways, that too may have helped attract a story like Snowden’s: there’s a suggestion in a Washington Post story that Snowden lost interest in working with the Post after the paper contacted the U.S. government to get a response to the leak of top-secret NSA documents. Greenwald, however, says this account of events is incorrect and that he had been talking with Snowden before the whistle-blower first went to the Washington Post.

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According to Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker who had been contacted by Snowden at about the same time as Greenwald — and wound up working with both the Post and the Guardian on their stories about him — the former CIA staffer had “a suspicion of mainstream media,” especially the New York Times, because it sat on a previous wire-tapping story for over a year. U.S. editor Gibson also said in an interview with The Huffington Post that the Guardian was able to take a much more skeptical role in pursuing the story than a U.S. newspaper might:

“There is a lack of skepticism on a whole in the media on the issue of national security… a sense that it is unpatriotic to question the role that the security services play.”

In some ways, the success of the Guardian in this particular case seems to be based on the combination of two powerful brands: one being the brand that Greenwald has fashioned for himself as a staunch defender of civil liberties — and also someone who isn’t shy of tilting at windmills — and the other being the Guardian‘s brand as an alternative voice to the CNNs or the other established U.S. media players when it comes to such issues. Both were likely powerful selling points when it came to a story about a top-secret spying campaign.

Whether that recipe continues to work for both Greenwald and the Guardian with future stories about other topics remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have paid off in this case.

Note: This post was updated at 10 p.m. on Monday to include more details about how Snowden contacted Glenn Greenwald

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Umberto Salvagnin and Jan-Arief Purwanto