Mysterious Discretion: When Journalists Wield Power We Don't Understand

By Jane Chong
Monday, February 23, 2015, 2:00 PM

Last night, Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, a win I have been anticipating since Glenn Greenwald won the Pulitzer Prize back in April for breaking the Edward Snowden leaks.

In honor of the occasion, let's reflect on the single most compelling moment in Citizenfour. I am talking about the moment in the film when the question of journalistic discretion is raised and left unexcavated---when Snowden admits to Poitras and Greenwald that some of the documents he is handing them “are legitimately classified” but indicates that he believes they are in a better position than he to gauge what should be released. “I trust you’ll be responsible,” Snowden says.

Shortly after Citizenfour was released to audiences last October, critics like Fred Kaplan of Slate pointed to these and similar statements made by Snowden on other occasions as indicative of “a gigantic evasion" of personal accountability. I see Snowden’s comments a little differently: not as evidence of him “abrogat[ing] all responsibility” but as key insight into our outsized trust in the journalist in the age of the hacker-leaker.

I get it, without necessarily agreeing with it, this tendency of ours to expect whistleblowers and leakers to be ready and able to run the ball to the end zone as a condition of running the ball at all. After all, the Snowdens of the world should not be excused from thinking through the enormous ramifications of their decisions. But I don’t find it ethically baffling that a leaker would decide to entrust sensitive documents to a journalist whose work he has long respected. Rather, I wonder about the place from which such trust derives. I wonder whether we have come to conflate journalism with truth-telling, and whether the inherent nobility of the profession has come to obscure the simple reality that its individual members---like members of any other profession---are driven by their own distinct agendas and ambitions. 

Put differently, like anyone else, journalists are motivated by a lot of things, and truth is only one of them. This should not be a controversial observation. This is why I had a different take than Ben on James Risen’s “Twitter tirade” in response to Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks last Tuesday on the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers. I wasn't perturbed that Risen is a New York Times reporter who also engages in some amount of constitutional doomsdayism on his Twitter account, or that Risen, a reporter who has been fighting the government for seven years to protect his confidential sources, is less than legally accurate on how the First Amendment applies to reporters when sounding the horn for free speech. If anything, Risen's tweets had a performative quality that I have come to appreciate as the purpose of 140-character screeds: he seemed to pull as hard as he did on his end of the rope to counterbalance what he perceived as the government pulling hard in the other direction.

But one problem with all this pulling is you often do end up eliding the common ground you actually share with the opposition. For example, I think plenty of leakers and journalists agree with the general point that Holder made last week, that journalists shouldn’t publish leaks just because they can (an ode to discretion that he attempted to lay alongside the fact that the Obama administration doesn’t prosecute anywhere near all the leakers it can). As Citizenfour so briefly illuminates, Snowden, for one, shares the view that a great deal is staked on journalistic discretion. So I see it as a shame that this portion of Holder's remarks did not elicit more substantive engagement, from Risen and others. Instead, the debate concluded with Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, defending Risen for his “insistence on truth-telling and challenging the powerful.” This is the type of uninformative rhetoric that we continue to favor, although it does nothing to address the very important question of how journalists should exercise their discretion in the face of hard national security choices, not to mention complex professional pressures and personal aspirations.

It seems to me that Poitras put Sullivan's underlying point far better during her Oscar acceptance speech when she stated, “When the most important decisions being made that affect all of us are being made in secrecy, we lose our ability to check the powers in control.” I would only add that this doesn’t become any less true when a journalist is the one making the secret decisions, and we fail to subject to robust debate the thought processes, principles and trade-offs by which such decisions are made.