Blog Post

The NSA story isn’t “journalistic malfeasance” — it’s a story that is evolving in real time

There have been a host of critical responses to the recent stories from the Guardian and Washington Post about the NSA and its massive phone-data and internet surveillance programs, and many of them have taken aim at the reporting involved in those stories — which some allege has been shoddy and incomplete. In one recent post in particular, freelance journalist Joshua Foust said that the stories have amounted to “journalistic malfeasance” because much of what they have been reporting has turned out to be wrong.

But even more than that, Foust — who writes about counter-terrorism and used to work for the American Security Project — argues that these errors mean the Guardian (please see disclosure below) and Post stories were rushed into print with little or no regard for the facts, and suggests this is part of a regrettable trend towards breaking news without spending enough time to verify what is being reported. But is that really fair?

Both sides have their version of events

Top secret

In fact, much of the evidence Foust provides to counter the Guardian seems to be based on a foundation just as shaky as anything the newspaper reported. There may be some well-founded doubts about former CIA staffer Edward Snowden’s credibility on some aspects of the PRISM program, but Foust seems to take as gospel public statements from NSA officials and others in the Obama administration, as well as anonymous sources who are quoted by other outlets — and ignores evidence that contradicts his own conclusions.

Ryan Singel, a former Wired editor who now runs a startup called Contextly, notes a few of these cases in comments posted on Foust’s piece, which appeared on Medium (where comments appear alongside the sentences to which they refer). For example, Foust says the Guardian incorrectly stated that other phone companies have also had their data collected by the NSA, not just Verizon — a claim he scoffs at. But as Singel notes, there are reliable reports that other companies have been part of the same program.

Foust also questions the Guardian‘s statement that this type of data collection wasn’t envisioned by the Patriot Act, and therefore came as a surprise to many, but as Singel points out in a comment, even one of the authors of the Patriot Act says the law was never intended to permit that kind of mass surveillance. And while Foust says the collection described is arguably legal, Singel makes the case that it could well not be, based on a recent decision from the Supreme Court.

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The idea that the NSA program gave the spy agency “direct access” to the servers of companies like Google and Facebook is another Foust target: he points out that subsequent reporting showed the PRISM system may well be just a way of automating the production of data under FISA court orders, rather than providing indiscriminate access to tech company servers. But he ignores the fact that the kind of lock-box system the New York Times and others described could easily fall within the term “direct access.”

It’s not a single story but a process

The point is that the stories the Guardian and Post reported were just the beginning of an evolving story about a top-secret program — one whose details are sketchy at best, and one whose very existence was likely to be denied by not only the NSA but plenty of other sources who were happy to answer phone calls from journalists with their own spin on events.

The reality is that some or all of the stories we’ve seen about PRISM and the NSA would likely never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the Guardian and Post reports. Does this qualify as “journalistic malfeasance?” Hardly. In some ways, it’s a perfect example of the idea of news as a process rather than a finished product — reports about a secret document trigger a host of other reports, and eventually more of the truth emerges.

Is it messy? No questions. Have there been mistakes? Yes (and it’s true that some of those probably haven’t been identified as transparently as they should have been). But it’s hardly malfeasance.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM/paidContent.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto

6 Responses to “The NSA story isn’t “journalistic malfeasance” — it’s a story that is evolving in real time”

  1. The problem is not so much with an evolving story, the problem is that the media sat on their asses for 12 years and basically ignored this story until some brave non journalist decide to leak information.

  2. Wise Old Guy

    Lately there has been a lot of clap trap about modern news reporting becoming a process instead of reporting well verified facts as in the past.

    The problem is that too many readers do not evolve along with the process, but instead go crazy all at once over the alleged or incomplete facts. Then they never change their minds after forming their first impression. Everything and everyone is all bad or all good and nothing will ever change their minds. That is the real problem with slap dash reporting.

    I see it as nothing more than sensationalism for the sake of one-upmanship. Half-truths are in fact lies, but now-a-days nobody cares about ethics. If there is collateral damage along the way that is OK as long as the outcome is personally beneficial, or beneficial to the organization.

  3. The Snowden story has evolved from “The NSA has direct access to whatever you do on Google, Facebook, etc.” to “The NSA can use a FISA warrant to ask Google, Facebook etc. to deliver data about specific accounts.” Note that this evolution is in the opposite direction from the Watergate story, which evolved from a local story about a burglary into a broad conspiracy involving the president and the IRS.

    The Snowden story may have the salutary effect of driving reform of our security state, but through drawing public attention to what we already know, not, so far, due to any new revelations.

  4. Phil Kolar

    Anyone who remembers the ongoing investigation and reporting,the piecemeal construction of the Post’s(and eventually other’s) picture that finally emerged on Watergate will recognize the veracity of the above statements.A secret organization allowed to exist in the shadow of the U.S. government and you’d like a bold, all-inclusive and full color picture of it right now or you won”t believe any of it? For this kind of instant gratification without any responsibility or effort on your part,go back to your video games where everything is explained and nothing really matters.More than a revelation of facts, Snowden’s acts are a challenge to Americans to live up to their ideals.