After BuzzFeed's "killing Snowden" story, three unanswered questions

By David Sirota , written on January 21, 2014

From The News Desk

As the incendiary quotes from anonymous government sources Buzz-fed their way across the Internet over the weekend, many were outraged at the sheer hubris of it all.

As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick notes, the spectacle of NSA and Pentagon officials appearing to making death threats against Edward Snowden - and making them for publication - suggests not just a few zealots who’ve watched too many spy movies, but a truly corrupted and lawless ideology pervading the national security state.

On Twitter, by email, and in the comments section of my Pando piece aiming to contextualize Buzzfeed’s original report, some Obama administration defenders brushed all of this off by alleging (without proof, mind you) that those making the threats against Snowden are just low-level folks, and that therefore the comments are unimportant. But, of course, if those issuing the threats were only rank-and-file grunts and not “top” officials (whatever that means), that doesn’t make it any better. It might even make it worse.

As I suggested in my piece on Friday, if it is low- or mid-level folks making such declarations, it is a sign that that the thinking represents not just that of the top political officials specifically embarrassed by Snowden, but also the larger sentiment throughout the government. Whether that sentiment is literal (aka they literally want Obama to put Snowden on his kill list) or more political (aka they want to scare other potential whistleblowers into silence) is open to interpretation - but the details of the killing fantasies are not.

Still, the Buzzfeed report, by correspondent Benny Johnson, leaves three big questions hanging out there - one about the Obama administration's reaction, one about anonymity in the new media age, and one about how to responsibly report on such death threats. With my Pando piece generating such enormous traffic, I figure it is worth addressing all three right here.

Is silence or inaction a tacit endorsement of death threats?

The first, most pressing public policy question that comes out of all of this is whether or not the Obama administration will work to discover the identity of - and then punish - Buzzfeed’s anonymous sources? It is a valid query considering that the death threats may may run afoul of the law. At minimum, such threats probably violate NSA and Pentagon employment protocols.

This administration has aggressively sought to expose anonymous sources when those sources say things the White House doesn’t like. This administration also has also launched the “Insider Threat” program to identify government officials who leak information or make unauthorized statements to the press. Considering the fact that at least one US Army official is quoted by Buzzfeed describing a detailed plan that he implies has already been internally outlined (“we would end it very quickly”), will the Insider Threat program now swing into action against Buzzfeed’s sources? Also, will the same prosecutorial zeal that the administration has brought against the leakers it doesn’t like now be brought to bear to out those quoted in Buzzfeed’s story?

If not, does that suggest the administration has no problem with these comments? Put another way, if the Obama administration doesn’t take the kind of action it has taken against others making unauthorized statements, does it suggest that the quotes in the Buzzfeed story do indeed embody an approved culture - one that is tacitly endorsed by a kill-list-wielding president who has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers?

When is it responsible to grant anonymity?

Another  question that has arisen in the back-and-forth about the Buzzfeed story is about anonymity itself. Why did Buzzfeed grant it to these NSA and Pentagon officials?

Beyond the problems anonymity poses for verifying the sources (which I'll get to in a moment), there's the obvious problem with anonymity being used to protect people in power positions who are promoting power's ideology. The standard (and perhaps now outdated) journalism practice is to try to grant anonymity, if at all, only to those who are blowing the whistle on abuses of power, not to those who are promoting those abuses. The logic behind the principle is that the protection anonymity affords shouldn't be granted to help make the powerful more powerful, but to instead prevent against retribution or bullying.

In the Buzzfeed case, however, the principle was flipped on its head. As retired Col. Morris Davis of Howard University suggested, it was used to protect the bullies - aka government officials who were taking pot shots at a whistleblower. That is to say, it was granted to let officials in the most powerful military apparatus on earth threaten someone's life, all while allowing those public officials to evade public accountability.

Looked at from a power-dynamic perspective, granting anonymity in this case seems to run counter to the journalism's traditional ethos - it seems to empower the already powerful and afflict the already afflicted. This doesn't make Buzzfeed unique, by the way. The New York Times, for example, has granted anonymity to Obama officials bragging about the president's "kill list." Politico often grants anonymity to top government and political party officials to snipe at their critics. The list of such examples at other media organization is lengthy - and troubling.

However, from an insight perspective, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith makes a compelling (if self-serving) point about the story of the Snowden death threats: If granting anonymity was the only way to give the public a glimpse of the ideology of officials acting in the public's name, then maybe it was a worthy trade-off. If, as Smith's logic goes, those NSA and Pentagon bullies would only allow those quotes to be used without their names attached, then sure - the individual bullies themselves are unduly protected, but at least the public gets a rare and important taste of the bloodlust and lawless attitudes festering inside its own government.

Is that a justifiable bargain? Is it OK to break a critical journalism rule and protect bullies to give readers an inside view of the most grave matters of national security and civil liberties? If it is a worthy trade off in this case, when is it not a worthy tradeoff - and is it a slippery slope to granting anonymity for anything?

There are no crystal clear right or wrong answers, and admitting that doesn't negate the overall significance of a story from a major news organization like Buzzfeed - assuming the quotes are legit.

Should there be a presumption of fabrication?

Of course, that latter sentence raises the last question: Is it fair to treat the quotes in the Buzzfeed story as legitimate and not wholly fabricated? In emails, comments and on Twitter, many hard-core Democratic Party loyalists said "no" in arguing that Pando should have never even published a report about the Buzzfeed quotes. So it is worth addressing this question in detail.

Anonymous quotes are always dicey in this respect, because by their nature they are difficult (if not impossible) to independently verify. However, that doesn't mean the news industry, the political class, and the general public simply dismisses and ignores anonymous quotes published by major outlets. On the contrary, when, say, the New York Times or Politico (as opposed to, say, a random individual's blog) publishes anonymous quotes, critics may question the editorial judgment of doing that, but the veracity of the quotes themselves are largely accepted (unless they are proven to be fake). That's because major outlets are presumed to have a basic editorial process (ie. editors, fact checkers, etc.) in place to make sure that such quotes are at least real.

This general presumption isn't as naive as it may seem. It exists not because most readers stupidly believe major outlets are motivated by morality and honesty. Instead, we assume these outlets and their investors at least value self-preservation, and we know that their business models are fundamentally based on the audience's belief that their reports are not wholesale fabrications. We therefore know that major media outlets may have (often abhorrent) editorial slants, but we also know they have a self-interest in at least making sure that the stuff like direct quotes they report are real, because if they are exposed for fabricating that kind of thing, they know they could face a severe financial price (lower readership and even legal liability).

That doesn't mean major news outlets never report stuff that is inaccurate or even fabricated (and that doesn't excuse them from inaccuracies or fabrications!). But it does mean that many rightly assume that most of those instances are negligence rather than deliberate intent on the part of the entire institution, which has a vested interest in preventing that kind of thing from happening.

So what about Buzzfeed in specific? Sure, it isn't the New York Times, but it's not some random loon's personal blog, either. It is a $200 million juggernaut that employs full-time reporters and that has a newsroom headed by a longtime journalist. Yes, as NSFWCORP's Yasha Levine diligently reported, it has forged some unseemly partnerships with conservative groups. Yes, the reporter who wrote the story has a known penchant for employing unscrupulous tactics and suffusing his reporting with an ideological agenda. And yes, all of that should make readers skeptical of the editorial slant of Buzzfeed and Johnson (ie. what stories they choose to report on, what stories they don't report on, how they editorialize between the facts/quotes, etc.).

However, legitimate skepticism about slant is different from presuming - without proof - that direct quotes from government officials are outright fabrications. In the same way that isn't the presumption for quotes published by similarly positioned media orgs (Politico, Roll Call, or even the New Republic, which has a storied history of fabulism), it shouldn't be for Buzzfeed or any other major outlet, unless there's either A) a known history pattern of deliberate fabrications from that institution or B) proof that the specific quotes in question are fabrications. That truism holds up regardless of whether you happen to loath or love Buzzfeed in specific.

Ignoring the bigger story

It should go without saying that if the quotes in the Buzzfeed story are proven to be outright fabrications (which hasn’t happened yet, and the Obama administration hasn’t denied their veracity), it will deal a serious blow to Buzzfeed and would be a huge media story - one that I would most certainly cover here at Pando.

However, let's set that aside for a moment. For argument's sake, let's say that even though the direct quotes from officials in President Obama's NSA and Pentagon haven't been proven to be fabricated, you still just refuse to accept them as real. Fine. But does that mean the larger story they fit into isn't important?

Remember, the real significance of Buzzfeed's story - the reason why it generated so much traffic - isn't about individual grudgeholders in the government. In the words of Free Press's Tim Karr, it is about how the quotes "about murdering Snowden are consistent with the NSA's regard for US law." (I would add to that the larger national security state's regard for the law).

To see that, just think about what we already know.

We know President Obama has embraced the ideology of lawlessness - we know that he claims the right to extrajudicially assassinate American citizens, even though such assassinations violate various laws and the due-process provisions of the constitution.

We know President Obama has openly joked about ordering extrajudicial assassinations, and that he has also bragged of being "really good at killing people."

We know that when asked about Obama drone-killing a 16-year-old U.S. citizen, the president's top adviser justified it not by citing any law, but by declaring that the boy "should have had a more responsible father."

We know that when former CIA Director Michael Hayden called for Obama to put whistleblower Edward Snowden on his "kill list" for extrajudicial assassination, the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee offered to help facilitate such an assassination.

We know that the Obama administration has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers - one that includes physical atrocities against some of them.

We know, in short, that while the questions about anonymity, Buzzfeed's editorial slant, and Johnson's ideological agenda are valuable, they shouldn't distract from the much larger messages being sent - and the actions being taken - at the very highest level of government.

Those messages and actions are the real story - the one that Democratic partisans don't want anyone to focus on because it may end up embarrassing their preferred politician. They aim to use the smokescreen of questions about anonymity, editorial slant, ideology and (most absurdly) photo juxtaposition to distract from what the government is doing in the public's name.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]