Why the NSA Leaker Should Be Prosecuted (Reply to Readers)
I wrote a short post on Thursday suggesting that whether you’re a fan or a sworn enemy of the surveillance state, you’d be wrong to condemn the pending prosecution of Edward Snowden. Drawing on a passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan, I argued that functional government is impossible “if the considered judgment of every individual secret-bearer were the new standard for what stays private and what gets splashed on the pages of the Washington Post.”
The post drew a lot of readers. A string of people registered displeasure with my argument on Facebook and in the comments section of the post itself. Some of the Facebook commenters apparently hadn’t read the post before weighing in, but several who read through to my conclusion found reason to complain. Some were upset enough to launch ad hominem attacks against me.
I was surprised at the level of vitriol among these readers. The position I was defending was essentially that of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi:
I think on three scores -- that is leaking the Patriot Act section 215, FISA 702, and the president's classified cyber operations's directive -- on the strength of leaking that, yes, that would be a prosecutable offense...I think that he should be prosecuted.
And Richard Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska law school, made essentially the same point I was urging at the New York Times:
Sometimes a national security program needs secrecy to be effective, and elected and judicial officials are charged with weighing the value of transparency against the national security benefits of secrecy. That happened in this case: All three government branches approved the program. Snowden and other citizens have the right to disagree – but he does not have the right to usurp the democratic process by leaking national security information.
This position is highly contestable, of course: Moberly’s piece was one of several in a “Room for Debate” forum on how the government should handle Snowden’s case. But that’s precisely the idea: this is a debatable question, one that calls for engagement and reasoned discourse, not calumny.
So let me clarify a few things in response to those readers with substantive challenges to my position.
1. Though my post quotes Hobbes, I am no Hobbesian. Nor do I suggest that the United States ought to become a Leviathan state. Yes, Hobbes is a totalitarian (one commentator labelled him “fascist”) and yes, his state bears little resemblance, thank goodness, to our American democracy. But the incoherence Hobbes finds with dual sovereignty is apposite to l’affaire Snowden: a case where a government employee was moved to share classified information with the public, thwarting the law and the democratic process and, in effect, electing himself commissioner of what should and shouldn’t be classified information.
2. I am no enemy of the separation of powers or checks and balances. I am not horrified, as Hobbes would be, by our complex interbranch relationships and “separate institutions sharing power,” as Richard Neustadt puts it. I fully endorse the Whistleblower Protection Act that gives federal employees the right to speak out against criminal activity they witness in their workplaces. But this legislation does not protect employees in the intelligence community, as Collier Meyerson points out, and there is a good reason it does not.
3. My position is not an indictment of freedom of the press. The press has a right and a professional duty to report what it knows about the state of the nation. Rep. Peter King's position that Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who report classified information should be prosecuted is dead wrong. But Greenwald never agreed to keep classified information under wraps; Snowden did.
4. Debate, discussion and dissent are integral to our democracy. Civil disobedience is too. One reader thinks my position is blind to this:
By that logic our founding father[s] should have been prosecuted, the French underground in WWII, the people who concealed Ann[e] Frank, any North Korean who doesn't toe the party line and of course Luke Skywalker.
Yes, Snowden broke the law, and yes you have Hobbes on your side. But what of:
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.”
― Aristotle, Selected Writings From The Nicomachean Ethics And Politics
“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
There is indeed a rich American tradition of disobeying unjust laws, and I am not counseling "obedience at all costs" as a general principle. But what Snowden did was not just to violate a law that shocked his conscience; he contravened his responsibility as an employee entrusted with classified information. And to categorize an act as an episode of civil disobedience is not to excuse it. In fact, accepting the legal consequences of one’s act is an essential factor in conscientiously undertaken civil disobedience. Here we may have the wisdom of the American crowd at work: though 54 percent of Americans approve of Snowden’s leak, only 28 percent believe he should go unprosecuted for his crime. As the Boston Globe editorialized this week,
Failing to prosecute him would send the message that people with top-secret clearance can choose for themselves whether to respect the law or not. That can’t happen. If Snowden made a sacrifice to protect civil liberties, then his sacrifice should extend to answering for his actions in court.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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