This morning, Jane and I posted a critique of the New York Times's very silly story about non-NSA surveillance---by one foreign government against another foreign governments---surveillance not against US persons, surveillance which did not target lawyers. The story was headlined: “Spying by N.S.A. Ally Entangled U.S. Law Firm.”
The story's dual byline included Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who was one of the recipients of the Snowden documents and who does not work for the New York Times but who has freelanced major pieces for the paper using Snowden material. In introducing the critique, I described Poitras---and I want to stress that I, not Jane, wrote the passage in question and that Jane bears no responsibility for the confusion and anger that ensued---as "freelancer Laura Poitras---from whom the Times (which insists it never pays for information) sometimes procures Snowden-leaked documents and to whom it gives a byline when it does so."
The firestorm on Twitter today over this line has been something fierce, and I'm afraid I fed it by trying to clarify what I meant---which can be difficult in 140 characters. Glenn Greenwald and others have said that I made ugly accusations against Poitras as being something other than a journalist---and as not having written the story in question but merely supplied the document on which it is based. I want to say, first of all, that I certainly did not intend to imply that; I have no reason to disbelieve that Poitras meaningfully served as an author on the story and was a bit mortified to find that my phraseology might lend itself to that understanding. My apologies. It really wasn't what I was trying to say. Nor, indeed, did I mean to accuse Poitras of any misconduct whatsoever. I don't think there is anything improper about her bringing material she obtained to the Times on a freelance basis.
Here is what I am not apologizing for: I am both puzzled and troubled by a larger pattern in the journalism surrounding the Snowden affair, of which this episode is but one example. I described this anxiety at some length back in November at a conference at NYU Law School, the video of which is available here:
As I say, nobody is doing anything wrong here, but I confess that I'm troubled by the power dynamics at work---for reasons that I'm sure will not endear me to my Twitter critics: I believe in institutional media. I believe in editors. And while I also deeply believe in the proliferation of voices that new media has enabled, I don't like it that Greenwald, Gellman, and Poitras have such enormous leverage against big media organizations which I expect to make responsible publishing decisions. Put simply, I am uncomfortable with the unaccountable power that this arrangement gives people like Poitras over organizations like the New York Times. And I don't really care how many people on Twitter scream at me for that view (Representative sample: "you got it, @benjaminwittes just admitted he's a believer in corpocracy, which makes him traitor to Constitution," "how dare the power be in the hands of individual journalists and not the corporate bottom line!" "Former Professional Journalist @benjaminwittes Suggests @nytimes Shouldn’t Pay Its Journalists"). These are organizations that disclaim a political agenda. Yet the Times this morning published a front page article by a woman it has described (again, in that profile) as follows:
Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.
And these are organizations which would, of course, never pay for information. But paying freelancers---freelancers with strong political views on the issues about which they are writing for the paper---can serve as a convenient fig leaf. One of the reasons I worry about this trend is that it is eroding the quality of editorial judgment at these organizations. Some of the stories the Post and other papers have run over the past several months have had major errors---factual and conceptual---that have gone uncorrected. And today's Poitras story, in its own small and laughable way, is an example too of how these arrangements are not helping the quality of coverage: The New York Times, after all, the paper of record, put on its front page this morning---above the fold---the shocking news that Australia spies on Indonesia and cooperates in intelligence matters with the United States.
Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, [Greenwald and Poitras] do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference.
. . .
Poitras, while not nearly as confrontational as Greenwald, disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”