The Vain Media Cynics of the NSA Story

In the past week, we've witnessed the post-9/11 era's most comprehensive set of stories about the extent of the U.S. government's secret domestic spying programs. It's front page news worldwide. It's sparked a national debate over privacy and security. And some of our nation's most useless political pundits could not be more bored.

For anyone involved in punditry or professional opinion-mongering, there is an almost irresistible impulse to get ahead of the conventional wisdom. We understand this impulse well. No one wants to be caught in the wishy-washy retreat towards the middle that typifies newspaper editorial page garbage on this (and most other) issues. Staking out a strong position outside of the consensus is a great way to attract attention, as a writer. Sometimes, this indicates intellectual independence and bravery. Other times, it indicates the opposite.

Let's be honest: Edward Snowden (pictured), the man who made a calculated decision to risk everything he has in order to reveal the NSA's secret spying program, did something heroic. You don't have to believe Edward Snowden himself is a grand hero, or a larger-than-life figure. But if you are a journalist— someone who works constantly to shed light on the workings of the government, with the belief that news is good for the public— you have to acknowledge that Edward Snowden did something quite admirable. If you are astute and rational enough to understand that a massive government domestic spying operation is newsworthy, then you must also understand that the person who exposed it at great personal risk has done something brave and worthwhile. Without Snowden's act, the public's knowledge of what is being done to them in their own name would be much poorer.

We usually take a backseat to no one when it comes to strongly stated positions that are outside the consensus. We are often accused of being cynics. But even we can see quite plainly that the Prism story is huge, important, and newsworthy, and that the person who made the story happen deserves credit for helping it come out.

Oddly enough, the cynics on this story reside in the ultra-establishment. They are the journalists and pundits who feel compelled to demonstrate their own sophistication by dismissing these revelations as old hat (though documented proof of these programs has never been seen before). They are those who have grown so inured to the gross overreach of government power that they can no longer conceive of it as scandalous. They prefer to comfort the NSA, and afflict the leaker. They are people like Jeffrey Toobin, at The New Yorker, who calls Snowden "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," and adds:

Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.

Or David Brooks, of The New York Times, who says that Snowden "betrayed" both honor and the Constitution, and engages in a bit of thinly sourced psychoanalysis:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments...

It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the National Security Agency.

Sure, except for the fact that it has never happened before, it is logical. (Millennials!) There's also David Simon, the creator of The Wire, who manages to compare this all to— surprise— law enforcement in Baltimore, and dismisses this unprecedented disclosure as a "faux-scandal" about the "Same old stuff." And there's Andrew Sullivan, the Blogger Most Likely to Appear on Sunday Talk Shows, who adds in his wide-eyed way that "I, like Simon, am actually impressed by the government’s efficacy in exploring these electronic trails and patterns."

A secret, unaccountable spying program vaster than the world has ever seen? Neat-o! (This is the same school of journalistic thought responsible for cranking out gee-whiz stories about the awesome technological capabilities of each new military weapon, without ever wondering about the morality of what those weapons are used for.)

But for sheer yawning dismissal of this story, no one can beat the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, a longtime fan of government secrecy:

[The NSA programs] were secret, yes, but members of Congress were informed — and they approved. Safeguards were built in. If, for instance, the omniscient computers picked up a pattern of phone calls from Mr. X to Suspected Terrorist Y, the government had to go to court to find out what was said. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act established a court consisting of 11 rotating federal judges. These judges are the same ones who rule on warrants the government seeks in domestic criminal cases. If we trust them for that, why would we not trust them for other things as well?

Cohen snidely calls Edward Snowden a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood" who will be forgotten by history. Snowden lacks the natural manliness of Richard Cohen.

You'll notice a few commonalities between all of these dismissive positions. All of these members of the media, who ostensibly work on the public's behalf, would prefer to take the completely unverifiable word of a top secret government agency that nothing is amiss, rather than to see any classified materials leak into the public realm. They fancy themselves able to deduce the motivations and mindset of Edward Snowden based on the thinnest of anecdotes. They all express contempt for the idea that the public has a right to know what its government is up to, unless that knowledge has been specifically approved by government censors.

And they all, in one form or another, express the idea that this stuff is unworthy of our concern because, hey, smart people like them already knew (er, assumed) this stuff was going on. To pay too much attention to it now would therefore undermine their reputation for being savvy. This is the most dangerous idea of all. When the media itself can't be bothered to get excited about an enormous secret government spying program, we're all in trouble. Nobody would know anything about anything if someone didn't bother to write about it.

[Photo: Getty]