Greenwald and the “who’s a journalist?” debate: As U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden tries to find a home (more on him later), the debate around the professional legitimacy of the journalists who broke his story — especially The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald — continued this week. Two pieces in particular drew the bulk of the criticism: At The Wall Street Journal, Edward Jay Epstein accused Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras of going beyond reporting to engage in “aiding and abetting” theft in their work with Snowden. And a Washington Post editorial advised the U.S. government on how to stop the leaks from Snowden and others like him.
Both pieces were met immediately with loud protests. CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis put together a Storify of the Twitter debates surrounding the Epstein column and whether it went too far in its accusations, including some responses from Greenwald himself. The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson rounded up some of the reaction to the Post’s editorial, much of which revolved around the fact that one of the people Snowden leaked to was the Post’s own reporter. Salon’s David Sirota warned of the danger inherent in the Post’s executives taking the side of government surveillance over the reporting freedom of their own reporters: “their concern is not that Snowden and journalists might be muzzled, but that they might not be before they break any more news.”
Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan made a similar point and also tied the Post’s animosity toward the story to jealousy over The Guardian’s scoop on it, noting another Post story that characterized The Guardian as a small paper, even though its web audience is bigger than the Post’s. On the other side, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that it’s perfectly reasonable for journalists to ask whether Greenwald broke the law on this story.
For many of those watching journalism, this discussion got distilled to the extremely well-trodden argument over who’s a journalist. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan posed exactly that question, arguing that when the Times uses labels like “activist” or “blogger,” they might be accurate, but they also signal a “you’re not one of us” distinction. One of the main objections to Sullivan’s guidelines for defining journalists (voiced well by paidContent’s Mathew Ingram) was that journalists should be defined by their willingness to be an adversary to government. Sullivan conceded that point in a follow-up.
Several others offered their own definitions (or resistance to definitions): Blogging pioneer Dave Winer stated that bloggers are people who originate ideas and make news, while journalists are those who report news. Jeff Jarvis argued that we should do away with the term “journalist” and instead talk about the extent to which people engage in journalism as a service (an approach that web philosopher David Weinberger endorsed). Poynter’s Eric Deggans also called for a definitional (and legal) shift from journalism as craft to journalism as act, and Forbes’ John McQuaid said the “who’s a journalist” question is often more of an attempt to delegitimize someone’s work than an honest inquiry.
Perhaps the most thoughtful perspective came from the Times’ David Carr, who argued that journalism and activism can coexist and noted that the separation of objectivity from subjectivity in journalism is relatively new. Still, he cautioned that “tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative”: “If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored,” he wrote. The Post’s Erik Wemple, meanwhile, pointed out that Greenwald is practicing a transparency regarding his reporting methods that other journalists would be wise to emulate.
Sullivan, Carr, and others noted that this debate isn’t just a semantic one; there are real legal consequences of this definition. To that end, Josh Stearns at BoingBoing and Jeff Hermes of the Digital Media Law Project have strong overviews of the legal issues at play here.
Snowden in limbo: There have been a few new developments in the NSA surveillance story — more slides describing the PRISM tech data program, and an aborted Guardian story based on a nutty source — but most of the new action has come from the difficulties of the story’s source, Edward Snowden, in finding a place to safely hide out long-term. Via WikiLeaks, with whom he has been working, Snowden issued a defiant statement from Moscow, though many people were doubtful that Snowden actually wrote it. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange also pledged that the revelations from Snowden will continue as Snowden sits in limbo.
Meanwhile, that limbo continued to become more unstable. Snowden canceled his asylum request to Russia (whose soil he is on) and issued 18 other requests for asylum, many of which were immediately rejected. The Wall Street Journal has the best summary of the situation: Snowden is stuck in the airport in Moscow while waiting for a country to take him in. It appeared he might get a friendly response from Bolivia, which led to rumors that a plane carrying Bolivia’s president out of Moscow on Tuesday was also carrying Snowden. As The Guardian reported in detail, several European countries blocked the plane from their airspace, forcing it to stop for 14 hours in Vienna, where it was revealed that Snowden was not, in fact, on it.
The Week’s Peter Weber explained Snowden’s steadily narrowing options at this point, and Slate’s Eric Posner explained why he’s not a good candidate for asylum. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank argued that through his rather madcap post-leak flight, Snowden is undermining U.S. national security and his own cause. Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, meanwhile, noted that the government officials condemning Snowden are leaking just about as much as he did.
A couple of other pieces of this story: WikiLeaks was approved as a political party in Australia, where Assange has said he plans to run for a senate seat, and Tom Watson of Forbes wondered whether WikiLeaks is effectively functioning as an international political party. And Jeff Jarvis at The Guardian and Micah Lee of the Freedom of the Press Foundation both urged people to use encryption for their online communication, with Lee giving some tips on how to get started.
Wisconsin j-school project beats back political pressure: After a few weeks of being threatened to sever ties with the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — based in the UW-Madison journalism school — got a reprieve over the weekend when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vetoed a budget provision that would have kicked the center off campus. Walker told newspapers that decisions about those arrangements should be made by the university’s Board of Regents, not legislators.
The center responded by reiterating their independence and freedom from taxpayer funding, as well as creating a new internship fund. Greg Downey, director of journalism school, wrote an insightful blog post explaining how the center overcame its ordeal and giving pointers to other schools that might experience similar political pressure. He emphasized the institutional support behind the center combined with its decentralized response, as well as the broader networks of resistance they were able to tap into.
Still, he cautioned that the threat from such silencing efforts is real, voicing his fear that concern about political stiff-arming “has already translated into a ‘chilling effect,’ making us less bold, less innovative, less creative, and more risk-averse in our research, teaching, and service than we might otherwise be.” The Columbia Journalism Review’s Anna Clark expanded on Downey’s tips, and Downey told the Capital Times’ Jack Craver that journalism shouldn’t shy away from issues that could be considered political as a result of threats like these.
Reading roundup: A few other stories going on during this holiday week (for the U.S. and Canada, anyway):
— News Corp. officially split into two companies last Friday, with the publishing arm retaining the name News Corp. and the entertainment arm branching off as 21st Century Fox. Free of the profit-draining newspapers of Murdoch’s empire, 21st Century Fox is catnip to investors, as Reuters’ Jennifer Saba noted, while the new News Corp. has an uphill battle in front of it. Its new CEO, Robert Thomson, said it’s focusing on the mobile market. Another aspect to watch here: A secret tape was released this week of a meeting earlier this year in which Rupert Murdoch acknowledged that he’d known for decades about his journalists bribing police officials, among other revelations. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade explained why the tape was released and put it into context.
— Google Reader formally shut down this week, officially moving RSS into a new, wide-open era. Google Reader’s founder said he wouldn’t start it up within today’s Google environment, and The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis explained why RSS never took off like Facebook and Twitter did. Instapaper’s Marco Arment, meanwhile, wrote a lament for RSS as a product of a more open web-native world that’s now the antithesis of the ever-growing empires of the tech giants, a point expanded on by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram.
— A few data journalism-related pieces: French digital newspaper exec Frederic Filloux talked about why data journalism is taking off, Northwestern professor Rich Gordon explained the three key parts of a data journalism team, and The Guardian’s Leo Hickman wrote a good, basic explainer of what algorithms are and why they’ve become so important.
— Finally, Oregon journalism professor Stephen Ward gave a short but stirring call to “radical journalism ethics” — to “systematically re-think journalism ethics from the ground up.”