Halfway through Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, a documentary filmed during Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald’s time immediately before and after the release of NSA documents, Snowden tells Greenwald that he doesn’t want to become the story; he wants the released documents to become the story. Greenwald agrees with him, saying the substance will be more important than the person.
This did not play out as they hoped, although through no fault of Snowden’s. It is not surprising that the United Stated and English governments tried to demonize the leakers, but the media’s reactions to the leaks are troubling, to say the least. One stunning example occurred on Meet the Press when now ousted host David Gregory asked Greenwald if Greenwald felt he should be placed in prison for what he did. Gregory might as well have asked if investigative journalists should regularly be rounded up and interrogated.
The media debate about Snowden tends to revolve around whether he is a Russian spy, a ridiculous assertion, if he should be killed, and if he should be branded a traitor. Less important is analysis of the reports concerning the NSA spying on Americans and other countries, along with other countries’ own spying tactics, especially the United Kingdom’s. That the media ignores this side of the conversation is disillusioning, but perhaps not all too surprising, and not without precedent.
A few years before the NSA leaks, Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, released a video to Wikileaks that showed American soldiers in a helicopter firing indiscriminately at people on the ground, two of whom were reporters for Reuters. The American military claimed insurgents were the ones being shot at, but there is little evidence that the armed men in the crowd were an immediate threat and not much more evidence that they were insurgents. Naturally, the U.S. military investigated itself and found no wrongdoing.
In the wake of the video’s release, a firestorm erupted concerning Wikileaks, its founder, Julian Assange, and Manning. There was much less coverage of what the leaks contained. In a 2013 poll, 52% of Americans were shown to believe Manning was a traitor. It’s difficult to find any polling on what Americans thought of the actual content that was released and whether or not the actions broke international law.
Past whistleblowers have had similar trouble in gaining traction with the public. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Peter Buxton, an employee of the Public Health Service, attempted to alert authorities in the PHS and CDC for years about the Tuskegee Experiments to no avail. He eventually leaked the documents to The Washington Star and managed to have some more success than Snowden or Manning, because a congressional investigation occurred, led by Ted Kennedy, which shut down the CDC’s experiment.
Yet there has been remarkably little long term fall out. That the United States government was conducting experiments on African Americans should have shaken the nation and resulted in massive structural changes that addressed corruption and racism, but no such actions took place.
Why is it that the American public and the American media react with little interest in the content whistleblowers leak? In recent years, it appears an attitude of indignation toward the whistleblowers themselves has grown. Manning’s revelations were met with a shrug and Snowden, along with Greenwald, was met with anger. There has been little outcry towards the American government itself.
The media’s reaction to the Manning and Snowden revelations can be understood when the current media structure is considered, especially that of televised news, since that is where most Americans get their information from. Cable news, and even broadcast news to an extent, runs on the belief that there must be a constant stream of brief, easy to understand sound bites. On the one hand, what Snowden divulged would be a great story to cover: “Government Gone Amok.” But televised news is in the awkward spot of needing government officials to come on the news in order to bolster ratings and this leads to a conflict of interest. When FOX News has Lindsay Graham appear to update us on how Obama breathed incorrectly and therefore hates America or when MSNBC brings on whichever Democratic congressperson has agreed to nod along while Chris Matthews talks, it is hard to take either station seriously in terms of questioning deep tissue government problems; some partisan quips are an easier and safer sport. Broadcast news has a similar problem, especially on its Sunday morning talk shows, all of which rely on having prominent political figures salivating at the idea of coming back on for exposure purposes. If these political figures are confronted with substantive, difficult questions then they might not be so easy to book again. Most investigative journalism is done by newspapers or websites; television news relies more on spectacle and the media needs to make sure that spectacle doesn’t end. Making sure political figures on programs feel comfortable enough to return is a big part of making sure the spectacle stays in place.
Then there’s the attitude of the general public. America has long been a nation that is not interested in viewing itself with a critical eye. Content to refer to itself as the greatest country in the world, America does its best to avoid facing up to scandals and travesties in its history, be it the genocide of the Native Americans or the crimes during the Vietnam War, and the ones currently unraveling.
Whistleblowers force countries to see their own flaws and this is not an act that citizens are too eager to engage in. As an American, I see this often, encountering countless individuals who, without irony, babble on about how America is a great, God-inspired country. What Snowden, what Manning, what Buxton, and what many other brave people have done directly threatens this belief in a perfect America. It is much easier to ignore the whistleblower, to dismiss him or her as a hack, than it is to question the country, to ask if it might be on the wrong path, to ask if we have allowed too much injustice to occur on our watch.
And then there’s the moment when we put ourselves in the whistleblower’s shoes. Would we do the same? Would we have the temerity to risk losing our jobs, perhaps even our freedom, to expose the sins of a powerful government? These are difficult questions to answers, questions that lead us to examine what type of people we are.
Isn’t it so much easier to just kill the messenger instead?