As old journalism norms fade, debate over Edward Snowden gets personal

REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Edward Snowden seen on a giant screen during a live video conference for an interview as part of Amnesty International's annual Write for Rights campaign at the Gaite Lyrique in Paris last year.

The norms of old-fashioned “objectivity” that dominated late-20th century journalism could sometimes get in the way of being bravely blunt or having a brutally honest fact-based argument. For example, reporters would sometimes shrink from writing certain things that were true and probative for fear of exposing their forbidden ideology. The old norms haven’t completely disappeared, but they are much weaker now and, on balance, I don’t miss them much.

Lawyer/journalist/author Glenn Greenwald, who writes mostly for The Intercept, is an example of someone who has done great work within the new freedom in which the boundaries between facts and arguments are sometimes blurrier, making it easier for a writer to say what he’s trying to say.

Greenwald was a key figure in the plot by Edward Snowden to leak secret government files that brought to light the extent of the federal government’s surveillance techniques into ordinary telephone traffic. The feds would like to put Snowden on trial for what he did but Snowden left the country and was given asylum in Russia where has lived for the past two years. Greenwald is in the camp that believes Snowden did something brave and useful.

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Face the Nation” that it was “no coincidence” that Snowden had ended up in the “loving arms” of the Russian intelligence service.

I wrote at the time that he’d better be able to back that up, but Rogers never did. (Rogers has since retired.)

I understand that to some Snowden is a traitor, to some a hero. The New York Times found him at least respectable and credible enough to publish last week an op-ed by Snowden in which he suggested that his leaks had done a lot of good, since the courts have recently struck down some the practices he exposed and “after a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.”

‘The Traitor’s Triumph’

That was too much for Max Boot, a prominent neoconservative writer, who wrote for the righty Commentary magazine an attack on the Times for running the piece by Snowden, whom he called a “traitor.” In fact, Boot’s piece was headlined: “The Traitor’s Triumph.”

Boot said the Times’ decision was the equivalent of a newspaper during World War II running an op-ed by Tokyo Rose, or anyone publishing a piece “by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad criticizing America’s policies in the war on terror.”

I would call that over the top. Greenwald thought it was worse than that. He thought Boot’s piece was a lie.

In a harsh but well-reasoned rebuttal in The Intercept, Greenwald zeroed in on errors in Boot’s piece that Greenwald labeled “lies” right in the title of the piece, which was: “Did Max Boot and Commentary Magazine Lie About Edward Snowden? You Decide.”

In Boot’s article, Greenwald noted, Boot wrote that Snowden has taken refuge in Russia, a country that operates “a surveillance apparatus … which far exceeds in scope anything created by any Western country.” (Greenwald doesn’t dispute that.) But then Boot added:

“Of course Ed Snowden is not courageous enough, or stupid enough, to criticize the dictatorship that he has defected to. It’s much easier and safer to criticize the country he betrayed from behind the protection provided by the FSB’s thugs.”

Personal attack

Greenwald was unimpressed with Boot’s portrayal of Snowden as a coward, and in the course of  rebutting the idea that Snowden was a coward, he went after Boot personally, thus:

It is literally the supreme act of projection for Max Boot to accuse anyone of lacking courage, as this particular think tank warmonger is the living, breathing personification of the unique strain of American neocon cowardice. Unlike Snowden — who sacrificed his liberty and unraveled his life in pursuit of his beliefs — the 45-year-old Boot has spent most of his adult life advocating for one war after the next, but always wanting to send his fellow citizens of his generation to die in them, while he hides in the comfort of Washington think tanks, never fighting them himself.

All of that is just garden-variety neocon cowardice, and it’s of course grotesque to watch someone like this call someone else a coward. But it’s so much worse if he lies when doing so. Did he do so here? You decide. From Snowden’s NYT op-ed today:

“Basic technical safeguards such as encryption — once considered esoteric and unnecessary — are now enabled by default in the products of pioneering companies like Apple, ensuring that even if your phone is stolen, your private life remains private. Such structural technological changes can ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders, insulating ordinary citizens from the arbitrary passage of anti-privacy laws, such as those now descending upon Russia.”

In case there is any chance the paragraph above might strike anyone as other than a criticism by Snowden of the “dictatorship he defected to,” exactly the act that Boot said Snowden lacked the courage to do, Greenwald notes that Time magazine (presumably a neutral party in this dispute) headlined its coverage of Snowden’s piece: “Edward Snowden Hits Out at Russia’s Privacy Laws.”

So Boot alleged that Snowden was too cowardly to criticize Russia in a piece he wrote that was based on a Snowden piece that criticized Russia.

Greenwald trots out other things Snowden has written and said that are critical of Russia. The argument goes on in the Twittersphere where, I admit, I do not venture.

So, to loop back, Greenwald trashes Boot pretty effectively. The stuff about Boot himself being a coward because he advocates for war but doesn’t enlist is a bit personal for my taste. And whether you call Boot a liar (which in my book requires knowingly telling a falsehood), you can decide for yourself. But on the main point, according to my lights, Greenwald has demonstrated that Boot’s piece contains a serious, slanderous falsehood. There is also at each stage of this brouhaha (or does one mean contretemps?) factual information coming through that, in all likelihood, couldn’t have come through the filters built into the old journalism of objectivity.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/09/2015 - 10:35 am.

    I often wondered

    how Snowden managed to support himself during those months that he was supposedly in limbo and the years since? I mean, who paid for his accommodations and other expenses? I heard he now has a job in tech support for a Russian website that he won’t name, although one snarkster has asked who were the two names he used as personal references?

    Yet none of those innocent questions were ever asked by the “objective” press.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 06:58 pm.

      The host country for an asylum-seeker has responsibilities

      At least on a temporary basis if we are talking about a strict reading of international law, Russia needs to help find its refugees accommodation and basic living expenses. It’s certainly not suspect in and of itself. I saw his apartment in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and it didn’t seem suspiciously opulent. Middle class but small. It was nice to see his girlfriend is living with him.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/10/2015 - 11:23 am.


      He had a six-figure government consulting job before he went public. Don’t you think that if he were a real spy he would have had a better escape plan than hopping a flight for Moscow, where he spent a lot of time in the departure lounge while the Russians debated what to do with him, after his hopes for some kind of asylum in Hong Kong went south?

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/09/2015 - 10:56 am.


    It seems reasonably clear that the reason Snowden ended up in Russia is because there were few other places that had the clout to resist the US efforts to haul him in. If, say, Switzerland had offered him asylum, he probably would have gone there instead. I think it’s an overreach to read his ending up there as a validation of Putin’s Russia.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 11:15 am.

      He was in transit through Russia

      When his travel documents were revoked. He’s being kept in Russia by the United States; otherwise he’d have left for South America years ago.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/09/2015 - 11:39 am.


      Merely going to Russia itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Snowden lost me when he went on TV to support Putin. At that point we are no longer talking about asylum.

      • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 02:06 pm.

        how are we “no longer talking about asylum”?

        It’s not Russia that revoked his passport, effectively preventing him from leaving. If the best you can do is that he “implicitly” supported Putin by asking him a question, then I’d say you might want to find a different source for your talking points. In the article above, Doug Grow quotes Greenwald quoting Snowden’s NY Times op-ed piece in which he criticizes Russia.

        Snowden says that if the United States would charge him under a statute that allows him to provide a whistleblower defense in open court, he’ll return to face the charges. Charging Snowden with a WWI-era law that predates modern First Amendment case law is certainly grounds for political asylum under well-established international law. It’s a shame that it had to be Russia but that’s the result of a US smear campaign, not Snowden’s fault.

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/10/2015 - 11:28 am.

          four stars good, no stars bad

          I say give him Snowden the same deal as Petraeus, probation and a relatively modest fine. Snowden told his government’s secrets because he thought its conduct was wrong; Petraeus did it for some nookie.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/09/2015 - 10:58 am.

    You decide

    I’ve never been a journalist, but I also have never believed in the apparently-dying credo of journalistic objectivity. It has always seemed to me, for whatever it’s worth, that a significant difference exists between “objectivity” and “fairness.” “Objectivity” strikes me as both unlikely and impractical – we can’t help but be products of our times and our experiences, both good and not-so-good, and that colors the way we see events and express ourselves about them.

    There’s plenty of recent research to show that, when confronted with facts that directly contradict strongly-held beliefs, many people just dig in their intellectual heels and refuse to believe the factual evidence in front of them. A more reasonable and fair standard, I’d argue, is to strive for “fairness.”

    If Snowden is a traitor, why are we shutting down some of the program(s) he exposed? If he’s a hero, how have we benefited as a society from his exposures? What if – gasp – he’s some of both? Nuance is a characteristic that’s often lost in the shuffle when controversial issues and people are the topics of discussion. “Fairness” seems to me somewhat more capable of presenting both sides of an argument that’s contentious to begin with than “objectivity.” I can acknowledge someone else’s viewpoint without subscribing to it myself if I’m striving for “fairness.” If the goal is “objectivity,” I may never reach it when the other guy’s arguments are, at least in my view, patently false. I’m less likely to present them as genuine or sincere.

    The web has provided a myriad of opportunities for people at both ends of the political spectrum to claim “objectivity” while providing very little that would qualify as “fairness.”

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/09/2015 - 11:25 am.

    Objective Media

    The ideal that journalism was supposed to be “objective” is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that seems to be confined largely to the US. For example, if you go back and look at the listings of Minnesota newspapers in 100 year-old Legislative Manuals,* you will see the partisan affiliation of every paper noted (you will also note how many papers were published in languages other than English, but that’s another story). In most countries with a free press, the partisan or ideological biases of newspapers is no secret to readers.

    Now, the pretense of objectivity is fading, especially in new media and cable news broadcasting (I wish Fox News had the honesty to admit they’re nothing more than a conservative outlet. Have biases, but own them). The ideal of objectivity leads to journalism that is nothing more than a listing of competing talking points–every story about a Republican has to be “balanced” by saying something about a Democrat. It’s Professor Krugman’s “Views Still Differ on the Shape of the Earth.”

    It seems absurd to pretend that journalists, alone amongst all humanity, have no political or ideological biases.

    *Yes, I’m that kind of nerd.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/09/2015 - 11:28 am.

    Although what he did is clearly within the description of espionage, I don’t think I’d label Snowden a traitor. I don’t believe he felt his actions would help any group as much as the citizens of the United States.

    Personally, while admitting his actions are criminal in nature, and am disturbed with his choice of refuge, I am very happy he spilled the beans. The federal government’s various alphabet soup agencies are clearly running amok on our constitutional rights, and their colleagues in state and local LE agencies are following suit.

    For me, he would have come out of this clean had he stood his ground and taken the feds on in court. He would almost certainly have been convicted, but it would have given people such as myself the opportunity to call for a lenient sentence. Therefore, I don’t see him as a hero, but I do approve of his cause.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 02:08 pm.

      Again, it’s not his choice of refuge

      He was originally in the Moscow airport with a transit visa and intended to continue on with his ticketed itinerary out of Russia. The Obama administration is forcing him to stay in Russia by revoking his onward traveling privileges. They want to have it both ways—question his reasons for staying in Russia while not allowing him to leave.

      Also, it’s important to note that under his current charge he literally cannot “take on the feds in open court.” A judge would prevent him from defending himself on whistleblower grounds. This is what his lawyer is trying to negotiate with the feds right now. He has repeatedly stated he is willing to face charges if he’s allowed to bring a whistleblower defense in court.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/09/2015 - 04:41 pm.

        With what he was up to, he had no business being in Russia at all.

        • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 04:50 pm.

          The Hong Kong departure transiting through Moscow was tactical

          Tactical brilliance. It was engineered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a crack team of human rights lawyers. Snowden had a lot of effective, legal international orgs on his side as soon as he made the wise decision to go public and admit fully what he had done.

          The tactical brilliance of the US spin doctors was to block his onward travel past Moscow and force him to stay in Russia and look nefarious or come home and face life in prison with no available whistleblower defense.

          And that, Mr. Swift, is the current state of play.

    • Submitted by Chris Betcher on 06/11/2015 - 08:06 am.

      Why do I get the feeling that if he would have done as you described he would have ended up mysteriously dead, or if he somehow managed to escape an “Accident” he would have just rotted away in a maximum security prison for decades without Due Process?

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/09/2015 - 11:43 am.

    And not Or

    Can I say that Snowden is both a hero and a traitor? That some of the things he did were important and heroic, while others were illegal and harmful? He’s a conplicated guy and its a complicated case.

    • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/09/2015 - 02:10 pm.

      Traitor is a strong word

      Treason is one of the only crimes mentioned in the original body Constitution because the Founding Fathers found its misuse so distasteful that they wanted to be absolutely clear what it was and how it could be prosecuted. No one has charged Snowden with treason, nor will they, so no, he is not a traitor.

      • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/10/2015 - 11:41 am.

        Hero is also a strong word

        People like MLK, Rosa Parks and others took the the consequences that came with their actions. They didn’t run and hide, nor did they qualify and attempt to negotiate their principles. So no, Snowden is clearly no hero.

        • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/10/2015 - 02:53 pm.

          different tactics same strategy

          It’s always a little confounding to me that the takeaway for a lot of people on MLK was that he accepted the consequences of his actions… and that’s what made him a hero. He had lawyers working for him—that’s how he kept getting released, and that’s how he was able to avoid sentences like, say, life in prison.

          MLK made little tactical compromises all the time. But his general tactical approach —at least the one you are referring to—was to trick law enforcement into overreacting to get national and international media attention. Snowden’s tactics have also come at great personal cost to his liberty, and have also succeeded in getting media attention and ultimately federal policy change.

          I’m reasonably sure MLK would have preferred not to have been assassinated. I’m pretty sure MLK hated every minute of being in jail but it’s ultimately tactics not some absolute moral code that dictate how to advance a cause.

          Snowden seems to me to be doing the same thing: tactics, strategy, personal risk, and at least some desire for self-preservation. He has lawyers just like MLK. Snowden’s lawyers have advised him to seek asylum until he at least gets a reasonable set of charges that allows him to defend himself in open court.

        • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 06/10/2015 - 03:23 pm.

          what makes MLK a hero

          To me, it’s a few things, none of which have to do with “accepting the consequences of his actions”:

          1. His overriding insistence that the law (and the culture) was morally wrong.
          2. His absolute insistence on non-violence and love as weapons against intolerance and hate.
          3. His eloquent ability to marshall a movement around his cause.

          Is Snowden a hero? I’m not prepared to judge. But in thirty years I think we will know the answer. After all, in 1961 at the height of the freedom rides could any sane person have predicted MLK would have a memorial on the National Mall and a federal holiday in his honor?

  7. Submitted by Hal Davis on 06/09/2015 - 01:02 pm.


    …as a news reporting standard arose during the Civil War, when newspapers of different partisan bents pooled resources to fund the Associated Press, whose down-the-middle factual reporting would be used by all its members. As a commercial news reporting standard, E.W. Scripps’ United Press in the first decade of the 20th century followed a similar formula.

    As news sources expanded in the electronic era, “objectivity” became one of many ways to tell a story.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/09/2015 - 01:30 pm.

    In judging the value of what Snowden did, let’s not forget that all the stuff he revealed as illegal proceedings by the U.S. government is itself treasonous. Unconstitutional if anything is: Warrantless searches. No judicial advocacy before ultra-secret courts for the public’s interest when surveillance was requested. Blanket surveillance of innocent and unknowing U.S. citizens. Zero information provided to Congress about what our spying agents were doing. Basically, Snowden revealed a spying function in our country that has completely run amok.

    He opened the discussion, with FACTS that people in Washington desperately wanted kept secret from us all.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 06/09/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    First Curious

    Is the article about the folks that Honored or whacked Snowden?
    Is the article a replay: Was Snowden a hero or a traitor?
    Is the article Russia is good USA bad or vice-versa depending on who is looking?

    Sun Tzu 101: Employment of secret agents, The reason the strong general wins before there is a war is because he has foreknowledge. (Undeniable principle of warfare) whether you believe it or not we are always at war.

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/09/2015 - 07:24 pm.

    ….As old journalism norms fade, debate over Edward Snowden gets personal…..

    I’d have to be hard-pressed to describe anyone whose writing is referenced in this article as an “impartial journalist”, now or at any time.

    Certainly no more than the commenters on this article.

    Opinions are like noses– everyone has one, but some stick out more than others

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/10/2015 - 07:52 am.

    Perhaps the confusion about new journalism these days is that people are not content to get the news and develop opinions.

    Far better to short-circuit the process and go straight to the fully developed instant opinion of the writers like Max Boot.

    It’s easy and it doesn’t expose you to the charges of iconoclasm from your fellow travelers.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2015 - 09:38 am.

    Style vs. Substance

    “Objective” journalism was never about actually being objective, it was always a style of writing and presentation. The theory was that the objective “style” gave one an aura of credibility. As such objectivity often bordered/borders on being deceptive or at least participating in deception. On a very basic level the notion that you can establish credibility via style rather than substance is deceptive, it assumes that how you report is more important than what you report. You don’t have to be credible as long as you look credible. The problem is that inevitably the “how” starts dictating the “what”.

    Beyond style the dirty little secret of “objective reporting” is it’s symbiotic relationship with “access”. Like politicians who claim that political donations don’t influence their lawmaking journalists will claim that “access” doesn’t influence their reporting. Pseudo objectivity promotes a web a circularity whereby power grants access to journalist so long as journalist moderate their criticism or obscure responsibility.

    The second dirty little secret of journalism is that “access” is irrelevant, you never get the truth from the Dick Cheney or Henry Kissinger anyways so it doesn’t matter whether or not you can get an interview with them. The truth almost never comes from power, it comes from people like Snowden. Power lies, so having access to power and reporting what power says is often little more than a broadcast of deception. Dayton calls it: “The People’s Stadium.” So what?

    The third dirty little secret about “objectivity” is that it’s about attracting eyeballs, not digging up reliable information. Kissinger may lie, but a lot of people will tune in to hear about it.

  13. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/10/2015 - 06:47 pm.

    The sad state we dare not recognize…

    To recognize Snowden as a hero in a world of so many ‘false heroes” is almost to downsize his signifigence in a nation, too often lately, losing its credibility as a democratic society… with all it once was and was intended to be?

    Who are we now with surveillence a given and torture accepted or debated and the whistle-blower, speaking out; reduced to words like traitor and treason?

    I respect Obama on many issues but here he betrayed the public ‘hope’ and trust when injustice was shuffled into a sick evaluation called “traitor”

    Obama needs to apologize, NEEDS TO APOLOGIZE…it can happen here and would gain respect from those who put their hope in an initially honest man Obama…and his wise reconsideration, reevaluation and recognition of respect for that rare gem of a human being as is Snowden.

    Chris Hedges was on S Tavis program PBS last night…quite a worthwhile interview and critique on the media we are stuck with and the sad state of journalism, journalists working for the corporate almighty dollar…sad state of things and only a few whistle-blowers have the courage to speak up?

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2015 - 08:46 am.

    And let’s not forget…

    If it were up the major established corporate media we wouldn’t even know about Snowden. It’s been “new” journalism outlets like Wikileaks that have broken these stories time after time. They ask the “White House”, the White House denies it… and they move on. Stenography has never been good journalism.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2015 - 08:51 am.

    At any rate yes…

    The disintegration of integrity in the media is a huge threat to democracy and public policy. We have a media that is now populated with disingenuous hacks pretending to be intellectual stars. We should have stopped pretending that some of these people were credible in any way long ago. In man cases we see demonstrable dishonesty so why not call it out?

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