Cultural Commentator

How Snowden Misunderstood the Media

Cultural Commentator

How Snowden Misunderstood the Media

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When Edward Snowden publicly identified himself as the leaker of documents showing the National Security Administration’s surveillance program, he said he did so in an effort to control the story. Though “I know the media likes to personalise political debates,” he said, “I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing.” Given that there was a literal plane full of journalists trying to interview him Monday, over two weeks after his initial announcement, it seems safe to say that this has not gone the way he’d hoped.

Certainly the impulse was well-intentioned. He’s not wrong that the media turns large-scale problems into small personal ones. Snowden’s thinking seems to have been that if he would eventually be revealed as the leaker, and that revelation would eclipse all the stuff in the documents he leaked, by coming out voluntarily he could get the story over with so everyone would move on to the important stuff.

So how did someone with enough media literacy to be aware of this problem nevertheless become the story? In part, it may have been that such consciousness was partial. Research about how the press decides what’s news and what isn’t, or newsworthiness, has identified some of Snowden’s very activities as exactly the kind of thing that gets you covered. In short, that comes down to what researchers call “deviance,” or difference from the norm. Snowden was right that the initial announcement would be incredibly newsworthy: it was novel and consequential information about a controversial subject with an individual at the center. But then all of his subsequent moves have fallen into those categories, too. The story didn’t stop at him in Hong Kong. It continued to develop, from his possible arrest to his flight to Russia to his consideration of other countries in which to seek asylum. Snowden may not want to become the story, but he sure as hell keeps giving the press new things to talk about.

It’s hard not to see a link between Snowden’s false conviction that he’d beat the media at its own game and the view of the world he shared with people like Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign Snowden donated to in 2012. The particular weakness of Paul’s ideology is that it’s much more about crafting criticisms than effective solutions. Snowden seemed to understand what the media did wrong, but hadn’t put much thought into how to avoid falling into their trap. If he’d made his announcement from a settled location and then maintained radio silence, the story would’ve died away. Instead, he’s become the story.

You can’t blame this entirely on Snowden, of course, since ultimately reporters and editors are the ones consciously deciding what to cover. But Snowden’s initial statement showed an understanding of the practical reality: larger forces (economic, cultural, professional, political) make it very hard for the media not to act in these ways, whether or not they want to. If indeed Snowden represents not an isolated incident but the start of a pattern of leakers using the internet to reveal government secrets, it’s important that these future leakers have the wisdom to know what they can change and what they can’t. The media fall squarely into the latter category.

Snowden’s decision was deliberate. Nothing forced his hand at that particular moment, it would appear, and he had as much time as he needed to make preparations before all hell broke loose. If future leakers have that luxury, it would behoove them to become a bit more informed about how we know the media works. If they really want their information to be the focus, then they need to figure out how to get the hell out of the way.