The limits of investigative journalism

How two media accounts of the intrusive security state led to different political outcomes

By Jay Rosen

Making knowledge public does not a knowledgeable public make. This is the thought I wish to impress upon you. It was probably always true, but certain things have happened lately that make contemplating this truth an urgent priority for those of us trying to understand how national publics can be better informed.

In July 2010, the Washington Post launched a major investigative series, Top Secret America. It was everything you could hope for in public service journalism. The story it had to tell, of the sprawling build-up of national security agencies and contractors since 2001, was of enormous public consequence: an “enterprise so massive that nobody in government has a full understanding of it”, a shadow state and secret world, “ubiquitous, often inefficient, and mostly invisible to the people it is meant to protect and who fund it.” What the series revealed was a crisis in governance, not to mention efficiency:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

“Top Secret America” took two reporters almost two years to complete. One of them, Dana Priest, is a two-time Pulitzer winner and stands at the very top of her profession. The other, William Arkin, has been writing about national security and privacy issues for 30 years. More than a dozen Post journalists worked on parts of it. The series started in July and concluded in December. And it wasn’t just a newspaper series. Frontline, the most prestigious documentary series on public television in the US, made a film about it in September 2011.

The series emerged into a political environment primed to react to tales of government overreach and excess. The Tea Party movement — which attempts to say “enough” to government spending — had emerged the year before. The Frontline film was shown during the height of the mid-term election campaign, when Tea Party candidates had their greatest success.

This is how the alert system is supposed to work — the fourth estate investigates, the political system responds — but in the end it did not work. The system did not respond. “Top Secret America” went nowhere. It produced no calls for reform. It triggered no wave of investigations. The rest of the press did not pick up on the story. It appeared, it was praised by some, and then it disappeared. An eerie sign that this would happen was part of the initial report. An editors’ note read:

Because of the nature of this project, we allowed government officials to see the Web site several months ago and asked them to tell us of any specific concerns. They offered none at that time. As the project evolved, we shared the Web site’s revised capabilities. Again, we asked for specific concerns. One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items. Another agency objected that the entire Web site could pose a national security risk but declined to offer specific comments.

The people who work in the security state weren’t worried about being exposed, even though they had, in a sense, been stripped naked before the world. The Washington Post convincingly showed that they were out of control, spending money like crazy, and unaccountable to voters. Yet somehow they knew that nothing would happen.

Now let’s jump ahead three years. The other day I opened my browser, clicked a link in my Twitter feed and found myself at a Guardian report: "Patriot Act author prepares bill to put NSA bulk collection ‘out of business’". Top Secret America, by now known as the surveillance state, was officially on the run. Powerful members of the US Congress had realised that the system was indeed out of control. The creator of its enabling legislation, the conservative Republican who co-authored America’s USA PATRIOT Act, James Sensenbrenner, felt so betrayed by what happened that he was pushing new legislation that would prohibit the National Security Agency from trying to listen to everybody. This represented a huge shift in the political climate from 2010. But what explained it?

Knowledge made public does not a public make. That explains it, or at least it helps. Investigative journalism can reveal and document problems. Political movements can talk them up. Activist and pressure groups can do their thing. But the result may yet be “nothing happens” unless other conditions are met. We can discover what some of them are by pressing on the comparison I have suggested here. The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” investigation (2010) vs. the Snowden effect (2013). The Snowden effect I have defined as: “Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the US.”

In 2010: a major investigation of classified programs uncovers government overreach and lack of accountability on a massive and troubling scale, but nothing happens. In 2013 similar revelations result in the biggest challenge to the security state since the Church Committee hearings in the aftermath of Watergate. Why?

I don’t think we have a general theory of public knowledge that can answer this question, so, in the absence of such, here are some factors worth highlighting:

An organising personality

The events of 2013 had a person at the centre of the story: Edward Snowden. In 2010, there was only an “issue” at the centre: the swelling size of the security state. Snowden’s presence helps organise the narrative in classic human-interest terms. Is he a hero, a whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg called him? Or is he an irresponsible and deluded child, a narcissist, as the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin has said? It’s true that debates like that can easily overwhelm some of the more serious issues and lead to a lot of posturing. It’s also true that they help focus attention on issues like: “how much secrecy is too much?” and: “who is responsible?”

The presence of an organising personality in the events of 2013 is not an accident of history but the result of deliberate decision-making by two of the key actors: Snowden and filmmaker Laura Poitras. This is from a recent interview of her by Lauren Cornell:

LP: We were working with encryption, and he said he had information, and for most of our correspondence before we met, I assumed his intention was to remain anonymous. Then at some point in an email he revealed to me that he wanted to be identified, because he didn’t want anyone else to take the blame for this.

LC: It’s a tremendous act of accountability.

LP: He said he didn’t want to ruin the lives of everyone who worked with him, and it would all ultimately lead back to him. He told me what he wanted me to do was not to try to hide his identity, but to actually point toward him. After I learned that, I asked to interview him on camera. His first response was no, he didn’t want the story to be about him. Then I explained why, given the work that I do, for him to tell it was important. And not just because I knew the mainstream media interpretation would be predictable and narrow, but because to have somebody who understands how this technology works, who is willing to risk their life to expose it to the public, and that we could hear that articulated, would reach people in ways that the documents themselves wouldn’t. So I put forth that argument, and he agreed that we would meet, and it was several weeks later that we met.

The key phrase is “reach people in ways that the documents themselves wouldn’t.” Of course, without the documents, Snowden had nothing.

Narrative “fit”

In 2010 there was no resolution to the questions raised by “Top Secret America”. They just hung there. In 2013, as Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, a classic suspense story built up. What would his fate be? Could he elude the most powerful forces in the world? It’s true that a far more important question involved what the political system, the American public, and the nations of the world would ultimately do about his revelations, but we have to consider the “fit” between that slower, duller, more consequential but more abstract question and the undeniable drama of the spy story surrounding Snowden, Poitras, and his other major contact in the press, Glenn Greenwald, which is so strong on narrative, character and suspense that it is already being sold to Hollywood.

Is “distraction from” the right way of putting the relationship between the two? I’m not sure it is. You can’t wish for more public attention to the excesses of the surveillance state and then scoff at one of the means by which people come to the larger story, which is Snowden’s fate. On the other hand, when Hollywood comes calling, that’s not necessarily good news for public understanding of the historical situation from which a commercial drama is to be derived.

The power of secrets

The makers of a new documentary film about WikiLeaks decided to call it We Steal Secrets. It’s an inaccurate and tendentious title, because receiving secrets is not stealing them and evidence of a plot to steal secrets would make prosecution under the US Espionage Act more likely. But the filmmakers knew what they were doing in this sense: secrets have power. Revealing secrets has even more power. More power than assembling facts, even when the facts, properly assembled, are devastating in what they suggest.

When shown what the Washington Post was planning to report in 2010, officers of the security state collectively shrugged. They did not have much to say, in part because their secrets were not being spilled. In 2013, the very first story that emerged from the Snowden files was about a secret court order compelling Verizon to turn over to the government the record of all calls made by its customers. No one other than the parties directly involved had ever seen such a document. But here it is. If two stories make known a situation equally troubling and consequential, but one reveals closely held secrets and the other “merely” assembles facts that were hard to dig up, the one that exposes the secrets will register with far more force.

Government lying

On 3 July of this year, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian wrote this in his slashing, prosecutorial style:

The first NSA story to be reported was our June 6 article which exposed the bulk, indiscriminate collection by the US Government of the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. Ever since then, it has been undeniably clear that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, outright lied to the US Senate — specifically to the Intelligence Committee, the body charged with oversight over surveillance programs — when he said “no, sir” in response to this question from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

That Clapper fundamentally misled Congress is beyond dispute. The DNI himself has now been forced by our stories to admit that his statement was, in his words, “clearly erroneous” and to apologize. But he did this only once our front-page revelations forced him to do so: in other words, what he’s sorry about is that he got caught lying to the Senate.

That’s essentially what happened. When the government lies, and the revelations in the story prove it, that adds a momentum that would otherwise not be there. It puts journalists on alert and forces the political system to respond. This is another difference between “Top Secret America” in 2010 and the Snowden effect in 2013. Of course, it is intimately related to the power of secrets.

United front in journalism

In 2010 the Washington Post and Frontline did their reports. And that was it. In 2013, The Guardian and the Washington Post did the initial reports from the Snowden files, and the rest of the press followed up. Jack Shafer, media critic for Reuters, predicted as much on 8 June. “This will now fuel new cycles of reporting, leaks, and scoops — and another, and another — as new sources are cultivated and reportorial scraps gathering mold in journalists’ notebooks gain new relevance and help break stories.”

In the United States, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, the McClatchy newspapers’ Washington bureau, Bloomberg, and Politico all contributed pieces of the puzzle. (Details here.) Internationally, Le Monde in France, The Globe and Mail in Canada, Der Spiegel in Germany, and O Globo in Brazil broke news on the Snowden revelations or on related stories. Ignoring one newspaper and one documentary is easy. Ignoring a united front like that is harder.

Of course, it’s not like the editors of all these publications got together and decided to push the Snowden story. Rather, they recognised the other facts I have discussed here: the power of secrets, the uses of personality, the importance of government lying, the presence of narrative “fit”. Even with these advantages, the story revealed by Edward Snowden has not broken through completely, to the point where the average citizen — if there is such a person — sees how it affects his or her life. But unlike “Top Secret America” in 2010, it has at least forced the political system to respond.

Many stories of equal or even greater importance have been unable to accomplish that: climate change, for example. The information is “out there”. What is missing is not that, but something else. I do not think we understand very well what the something else is. But here is what we do know: Making knowledge public does not a knowledgeable public make. If we care about making democracy work, we ought to dig further into this mystery.