Granting a Pulitzer Prize to reporting based on information leaked by Edward Snowden legitimizes — and may even encourage — whistleblowing.
On Monday, Columbia University announced that The Washington Post and the United States’ arm of The Guardian have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their coverage of the warrantless wiretapping program conducted by the National Security Agency and by a select group of nations known as the “Five Eyes.” This reporting was based on intelligence leaked by former federal government contractor Edward Snowden.
The award was given for the “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security,” according to a press release from the prize committee.
The granting of this award — arguably, the most prestigious in journalism — is being seen by many — including Snowden himself — as a legitimation of Snowden’s alleged theft of the classified files.
“We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance,” said Snowden regarding the award. Snowden is currently living in asylum in Russia, away from American prosecution over the leaked documents.
The leak was reported by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill for The Guardian, Barton Gellman for the Post and Laura Poitras, a film producer who — along with Greenwald — is the only individual currently with full access to the leaked documents. Snowden’s leak marked the largest disclosure of government misconduct since The New York Times’ 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, which asserted that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration systematically lied to both the public and Congress about the scope and objective of the Vietnam War.
As such, there is a general feeling that news organizations are becoming more willing to take on whistleblowing stories. Despite the fact that Greenwald and Poitras have both faced difficulties in re-entering the United States — both are U.S. citizens without any active criminal charges against them — and although Snowden faces arrest should he attempt to return to the United States, there is a sense that an increasing percentage of journalists would publish a whistleblowing-story, regardless of the risk.
Without Snowden, “[t]here would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the President has acknowledged this is a conversation we need to have,” said Marty Baron, editor of The Washington Post, to his newsroom.
While the argument over whether Snowden helped or hindered America is one unlikely to have a conclusion, many agree that Snowden started a much-needed discussion in America. In a sense, that is the purpose of journalism: to start a conversation.
“History has taught journalists, over and over, that disclosure is almost always better than concealment,” Doyle McManus wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “When in doubt, our job is to publish and let the public and Congress sort it out. It’s an imperfect process, but so is democracy.”
The Boston Globe won the Pulitzer for breaking news reporting for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won for investigative reporting for his three-part report on how coal miners with black lung disease are being denied benefits through a system of industry-hired doctors and lawyers. Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times won for local reporting, covering how a county agency knowingly placed the homeless in unsafe living conditions. The New York Times took two awards for photography, and the committee chose not to award the feature writing award this year.