One of the most difficult features of the new news environment is that everybody gets to see the utter mess of the early hours of a breaking news story — the chaos, the bad information off the scanner, the misidentifications. Those are things that used to take place inside the newsroom or, at worst, be swept away on the unrecorded broadcast airwaves.
There is now a heated debate over the moral status of Edward Snowden — who fled Hong Kong for Moscow en route, reportedly, to Ecuador Sunday — and over whether his decision to flee almost certain conviction and imprisonment in the United States means that his actions can't be considered "civil disobedience." These seem like good questions for a philosophy class. They are terrible, boring, ones for reporters, and have more to do with the confusing new news environment than with the actual news.
Snowden is what used to be known as a source. And reporters don't, and shouldn't, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources. Sources sometimes act from the best of motives — a belief that readers should know something is amiss, or a simple desire to see a good story told. They also often act from motives far more straightforwardly venal than anything than has been suggested of Snowden: They want to screw someone who is in their way professionally; they want to score an ideological point by revealing a personal misdeed; they are acting on an old grudge, and serving revenge cold; they are collecting chits with the press to be cashed in later.
When these sources are anonymous or — in the case of earlier NSA sources — gray men whose stories haven't captured the public imagination, nobody much cares. The Nixon Administration's campaign to smear reporters' Vietnam source, Daniel Ellsberg, is remembered only for having happened. When you learn decades later that the most famous anonymous source in American history — Deep Throat — was an unappealing figure fighting a bureaucratic civil war, that's a mildly interesting footnote. The criminality he unearthed was interesting; Mark Felt wasn't really. Who cares?
Christians talk of hating the sin and loving the sinner; reporters occasionally operate in exactly the opposite way: They hate, or at least, dislike the source, and love the story. (They also sometimes adore the source, respect the source, like the source — you know who you are, honored BuzzFeed sources.) If anyone ought to understand this, it's the national security establishment: Spy agencies haven't ever been accused of being overly solicitous of their assets.
But the new media ecosystem has moved sources to the foreground. They make their cases directly on Twitter or in web videos; in Snowden's case, he also chose to protect himself by going and staying public in a way that would never before have been fully possible. "Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen," David Carr wrote recently. The fact that the public must now meet our sources, with their complex motives and personalities, is part of that deal.
Snowden's flight is a great, classic international story. It is, as Glenn Greenwald tweeted today, a kind of global White Bronco moment. His roots in web culture; his ideology; his decision-making; these are all great stories. He's a much more interesting figure than Mark Felt because, at least, he's a new figure, not a familiar one.
But Snowden's personal story is interesting only because the new details he revealed are so much more interesting. We know substantially more about domestic surveillance than we did, thanks largely to stories and documents printed by The Guardian. They would have been just as revelatory without Snowden's name on them. The shakeout has produced more revelatory reporting, notably this new McClatchy piece on the way in which President Obama's obsession with leaks has manifested itself in the bureaucracy with a new "Insider Threat Program."
Snowden's flight and its surrounding geopolitics are a good story; what he made public is a better one. I'm not sure why reporters should care all that much about his personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase "civil disobedience," or the fate of his eternal soul. And the public who used to be known as "readers" are going to have to get used to making that distinction.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.