The Snowden-Effect,  Wikileaks and Watergate

February 3, 2014 • Press Freedom • by

At a first glance, president Obama’s recent speech about the NSA seems to support arguments by Dan Gillmor, one of America’s most prominent Internet gurus. He believes that the fallout from the information leaked by Edward Snowden represent “a classic example of journalistic critical mass”.

In a contribution for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University he writes that “the governments running this massive surveillance dragnet were hoping the issue would fade away”. However, after the sustained and co-ordinated media coverage provided by the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel,”they are surely now understanding that it won’t happen anytime soon.”

According to Gillmor, “we learned that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ had been spying on a variety people and organizations that had no plausible connection to terrorism — confirmation that our surveillance targets had included, among others, business and economic interests.”
He continues: “The stories were all based on the same documents, leaked earlier in the year to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And they were yet another shoe dropping in a saga that shows no signs of dwindling public attention.”

No sign of dwindling public attention? It is interesting how differently social scientists can interpret the same events. Here is my version: President Nixon had to step down because of house-breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. and because of lying about this issue. President Clinton got nearly impeached because of his sexual adventures with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Barack Obama is politically responsible for the world wide surveillance of millions of citizens, including other, friendly leaders such as Angela Merkel.

In the case of the NSA leaks, American constitutional law may well have been broken, but Obama is still in office – unchallenged by a press which obviously has lost its power as well as its bite. Is a break-in into an office or a consented sexual adventure really a more serious crime than the revelations that the American president has either no control over his secret services, or he agrees complacently to their excessive and illegal instrusion of privacy and abrogation of the American constitution?

I would argue that despite its significance the Snowden story has so far not passed the attention threshold to create a “critical mass”. The Washington Post found out recently with a simple Google search that the terms “Snowden” and “Datagate” did not make it to one of the top ten topics of the year 2013. Names like Nelson Mandela, Paul Walker and Miley Cyrus were more popular than Snowden. The Playstation 4, iPhone 5 and the Harlem Shake got more attention than the data and surveillance scandal.

How lethargic are the citizens as well as the media in the Western world, if the most elementary constitutional rights like the protection of the private sphere and press freedom can be threatened, yet provoke so little interest? Unfortunately, the media – with a few exceptions like The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – have not yet given the Snowden story the kind of attention it deserves.

However, I do agree with Gillmor’s conclusions: “In a world of increasingly fragmented media creation, critical mass is more difficult. Social networks — viral marketing — can help.” He adds: ” Achieving critical mass “obliges journalists to rethink old traditions, especially competitive ones. ‘Exclusives’ can be counterproductive if they lead other journalists to ignore or downplay the news, whether out of jealousy or inability to get the confirming source material for their own coverage.” In a globalizing, but fragmentized media environment, newsrooms need to cooperate, and the Guardian has set a great example how such transnational “coopetition” may work.

But haven’t the media failed if people in London, Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, Paris and in New York, Washington and San Francisco still don’t follow the example of Ukrainians, if they don’t defend their most basic civil rights on the streets, even when chilled to their bones about what they may lose? The “critical mass” to protect privacy is obviously missing, and the era of enlightenment, privacy and press freedom may soon be over. The Internet may turn from a media laboratory into a prison.

If we want democracy to survive threats from out of our self-appointed terrorism “protectors” in the secret services, we, the citizens of the media-saturated Western world must start to defend our freedom and civil society against the attacks of stubborn, self-aggrandizing government bureaucracies.

The „old“ media would have to play a key role here. According to studies from the Project for Excellence in Journalism they are still producing most of the content which circulates in the „new“ media. However, they are playing their watchdog role in the U.S. quite differently to the times when the New York Times and the Washington Post disclosed the contents of Pentagon Papers, leading to the Watergate scandal that ended the Vietnam war and the career of President Nixon.

The media researchers Elizabeth Blanks Hindman (Washington State University) and Ryan J. Thomas (University of Missouri) recently analyzed what the editorials of American newspapers wrote about Wikileaks. Surprisingly, many of them positioned themselves against Wikileaks and in favor of the national security policy of the U.S. and described themselves as “the sole and legitimate stewards of the public interest”. The Wikileaks revelations came before Snowden’s disclosures about total worldwide surveillance by the NSA and their British accomplices. It may, however, explain why Snowden has had so little effect on the public, so far.

An earlier version of this article has been published in the Austrian weekly Die Furche (Nr. 4/2014)

Photo credit: Steve Rhodes / Flickr Cc

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