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Pulitzer Prize renews debate over controversial NSA surveillance reporting

April 14, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
Journalism's highest honor was awarded to The Washington Post and The Guardian U.S. for reporting that raised questions about privacy, surveillance and security, despite criticism about whether they should have published the stories in the first place. Gwen Ifill discusses this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners with Geneva Overholser of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.
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GWEN IFILL: Today’s Pulitzer award to The Washington Post and The Guardian renewed debate over journalism’s role and responsibility in reporting on domestic surveillance and national security. The coverage was based on a trove of documents leaked by national security contractor Edward Snowden, who now lives in Russia to escape prosecution.

U.S. officials say Snowden’s revelations did real damage, while his defenders say he performed a public service.

Geneva Overholser joins me now. She’s an independent journalist in New York and a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy. She also served on the Pulitzer Prize Board for nine years, part of that as its chairman.

Geneva, is the Pulitzer board basically settling the argument today by saying that they’re going to award this coverage?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, USC: Well, I would say, Gwen, that the argument will not be over, at least in terms of many people’s continued discomfort with this reporting.

But I do believe this is an extremely powerful affirmation of this important work.

GWEN IFILL: You know, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, as you know, not happy with this important work. He was quoted just yesterday at the University of Georgia as saying, “This is potentially the most damaging theft of intelligence material in our country’s history.”

So what is the correct balance between security, transparency and journalism?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, there’s always a tension and always will be in a democracy, because even the most rabid of reporters understand that there are national security issues that cannot be aired.

But we have been seeing the growth of government surveillance, of its own citizens, particularly of the growth of secrecy, for many years, particularly since 9/11. And what happened in this case is that journalism’s biggest prize went to a series of stories based on stolen documents, and certainly, as you said, the revelation of state secrets, decried by the White House, but I think, therefore, putting squarely behind these stories the American establishment of journalism and saying, this is in the public interest.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the journalism based on stolen documents. Reminds me of the Daniel Ellsberg case.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Exactly.

And, in 1972, the same thing happened. The Pulitzer Board very controversially — very controversially then gave the Pulitzer to the reporting by The New York Times on the Pentagon Papers. And, you know, that was the first time that had happened.

So they have sort of already crossed that bridge about being willing to give the prize based on stolen documents.

GWEN IFILL: What did journalists say to critics who say that Edward Snowden — or, actually, the Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian and Barton Gellman at The Washington Post basically acted as stenographers for Edward Snowden?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, you know, I don’t find a whole lot of value in that charge.

It is true that these documents came to them. They didn’t have to go out and do a lot of deep reporting. On the other hand, lots of good reporting is based on leaks, particularly in these areas like national security.

So, if this report — I mean, if this prize were given only, you know, for really deep-digging reporting, then it would be misplaced.

But it’s not. It was awarded to the most affecting story of this year, in my view. I mean, this story had enormous impact. There was a White House review. The president himself has said there need to be steps taken in terms of kind of reining in the National Security Agency.

There have been legal decisions that what was revealed in these documents was unconstitutional. So I think that the story had plenty of impact. And to quibble about, well, did they dig enough reporting is just wrong. There was plenty of good journalism that went into this.

A choice is made the way it was presented, and, very interestingly, the collaboration among journalists. As you know, this went to two news organizations and several individuals.

GWEN IFILL: Can reporters ever be — you have been involved in giving out these kinds of prizes for some time. Can reporters ever be considered accomplices in a case like this, and is it something that even factors into your thinking?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, that’s an interesting point.

I mean, you know, reporters are accomplices, in that they are the ones who reveal this information. They, of course, are not criminally liable the same way that Edward Snowden, who shared the information, is. And many people think that a grave injustice. This could not have happened without Snowden, and many see this as a vindication of him. We will have to see what happens on that regard.

But your point is interesting, particularly in terms of Glenn Greenwald, who, as you know, was involved in The Guardian story, and who is, frankly, a journalist who writes from a point of view. And I think that’s another of the interesting things about this story, that that kind of reporting has received an affirmation.

It is an increasing presence in the journalism world now. We’re going to see more of it. And the Pulitzer included his work.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that reminds me of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and other ways of getting information into the public sphere which cause controversy.

Is there a line anymore between activism and journalism?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, many people would say this was activism.

Some people would say all kinds of journalism are activism. I think that one reassurance here — I don’t know if there is a line, but in this case, what we saw was a collaboration, as I said, that included professional journalists operating at the highest standards, The Washington Post, The Guardian.

These are very responsible news organizations. So…

GWEN IFILL: Has a foreign-based news organization like The Guardian ever received a Pulitzer Prize before?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, strictly speaking, this went to The Guardian U.S.

GWEN IFILL: Ah.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: That is how it fit the rules.

But, as we all know, The Guardian, which is based in the United Kingdom, has been doing very aggressive journalism on this. And, you know, in some ways, interestingly, the collaboration helped it avoid censorship in the United States — I mean, in the U.K. — because the reach of this journalism has been so powerful.

GWEN IFILL: So interesting.

Geneva Overholser at USC Annenberg, thank you so much for helping us through this.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thank you so much, Gwen.