Our View: Praising those who open up government by whatever means necessary

DKS Editors

Last year at this time, what did you know about what the government knew about you?

The careful balance between bolstering national security and maintaining the liberties of individual privacy are now commonplace outside political science lecture halls and security experts; they’re commonplace topics in college classrooms.

But something else had to happen to turn a haul of private documents stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, into the biggest political story of the year, if not the decade: responsible journalism prevailed.

The Pulitzer committee recognized the middle man Monday when it awarded The Washington Post and Guardian news organizations each a Pulitzer Prize for public service. But the award, meant to annually showcase the most valiant efforts in journalism, this year served as a vindication for Snowden and the massive risks he underwent to expose secret NSA spying programs.

However brave and righteous the newspapers‘ actions were, the praise — and criticism — still goes back to the source.

Snowden’s thousands of classified documents detail various surveillance programs operated by the U.S. government, sometimes with cooperation with telecommunications companies and European governments. After the news agencies revealed his name, American and British governments heavily condemned Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia after the U.S. Justice Department charged him with espionage last June and have since been actively trying to prosecute him.

Response from media, however, was generally favorable and has only become more affectionate. Even more remarkable, Snowden’s supporters include not just those who could be called the fringe of free pass advocates, such

as Wikileaks, but also the mainstream

journalism community.

The Pulitzer announcement is the latest in a series of accolades.

In January, the Freedom of the Press Foundation announced Snowden would be on its board of directors. In March, he spoke by video feed at two conferences, South by Southwest Conference and TED, that describe

themselves as fostering innovation and technological growth.

In a statement released on Monday, Snowden said of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists: “Their work has given us a better future.”

However, we recognize the committee’s decision could have questionable outcomes for reporters who see the award as a green light to do whatever it takes — such as breaking obvious laws — to obtain information. Investigative journalism, which often seeks to expose urgent issues related to public health and security, can undoubtedly tread ethical lines when information gathering. Any temptation to, for example, illegally wiretap sources, pay for information or publish sensitive material is sure to become more pronounced after the Pulitzer.

Journalists must continue to value the potential harm and consequences as they’ve always done. While we don’t think Snowden should be hanged for treason, we do see harm in his actions. We can sympathize that the government programs he exposed are now tarnished and an embarrassment to the United States.

But isn’t that how an unrefined democracy should function: with all the information on the table?

“As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated,” Snowden told the Post last December. “Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

Snowden, who speaks eloquently, just might become one of the greatest political philosophers of our time, an advocate whose ideas are not unlike those of a free press. Are there limitations on what media should report? Of course. Do Snowden’s leaks and the Pulitzer committee’s praise mean journalism will become any less responsible? We don’t think so.