What Do You Call Edward Snowden? By Peter Hart

16 August 2013 — FAIR Blog

cbsen-snowdenOn CBS Evening News (8/13/13), anchor Scott Pelley gave viewers a brief–and very misleading–update on Edward Snowden: 

In an interview today, Edward Snowden appears to describe himself as a spy. Snowden is the National Security Agency computer specialist who spilled some of America’s top surveillance secrets. The New York Times asked Snowden about his collaboration with a reporter and Snowden replied, “As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media.” Snowden, wanted by the United States, is being harbored by Russia.

By highlighting this comment, CBS is suggesting that Snowden made some kind of important admission with his use of the word “spies.” Couple that with Pelley referencing the “collaboration” with an unnamed journalist–presumably Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian–and you can put the pieces together: Snowden, now “being harbored by Russia,” was acting as a spy when he “spilled” those secrets, with Greenwald his collaborator.

Sure, it’s not as alarming as, say, NBC‘s David Gregory musing about whether or not Greenwald should be arrested, but it’s striking language nonetheless.

A more plausible explanation for Snowden’s comments is that he was referring to his work for the CIA and the National Security Agency. His comment continued: “…so I was a virgin source–everything was a surprise.” He’s saying he didn’t have experience dealing with the media prior to talking to Greenwald. Why not? Because he had been working at secrecy-obsessed U.S. spy agencies. Pelley appears to misconstrue this as an admission that Snowden was working for a foreign government–perhaps under the assumption that the United States has “intelligence officers” and only other countries have “spies.”

Snowden has specifically denied being this kind of spy: “Ask yourself: If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now…. I only work with journalists.”

Pelley isn’t the only one using odd language to describe Snowden. On NBC Nightly News, as Huffington Post‘s Michael Calderone  (8/8/13) reported, anchor Lester Holt referred to “accused American spy Edward Snowden.” The newscast actually changed the language on the web version of the newscast, calling him then “admitted NSA leaker.” NBC admitted the change  to Calderone, but defended it  based on the fact that Snowden was charged with espionage. That’s a rather slippery defense, given the Obama administration’s willingness to charge an array of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. 

Besides, these examples, though, there is a sense among some elite pundits and journalists is that Edward Snowden is an unsympathetic, unlikable character–and they seem to think the public thinks so too. As New York Timescolumnist Tom Friedman (8/14/13) put it, since Barack Obama is talking about privacy reforms, Snowden needs to make a second impression with the public: 

Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression–that he truly is a whistleblower, not a traitor. The fact is, he dumped his data and fled to countries that are hostile to us and to the very principles he espoused. To make a second impression, Snowden would need to come home, make his case and face his accusers. It would mean risking a lengthy jail term, but also trusting the fair-mindedness of the American people, who, I believe, will not allow an authentic whistleblower to be unfairly punished.

Friedman’s not alone; on CBS‘s Face the Nation (8/4/13), Washington Post reporter Dan Balz claimed that Snowden ” has become a less sympathetic figure the longer he has been there, based on a lot of the evidence that we’ve seen.” And the show’s host, Bob Schieffer, pondered:  “Would you agree that Snowden has pretty much…forfeited any hope, if he ever thought he could be seen as a hero to the American people?”

But it’s not clear that the public feels this way. As Trevor Timm (Politico, 8/10/13) pointed out:

While the administration certainly doesn’t believe Snowden is patriotic, Americans do. A Quinnipiac poll conducted this month found people agreed, 55 percent to 34 percent, that he is a whistleblower–a large margin that crossed party, gender and age lines. A recent Reuters poll showed only 31 percent of the public thought he should be prosecuted.

It doesn’t seem like the problem is that Snowden needs to “reintroduce” himself to the public, but it’s hard to have a real discussion about him when so many in the media have already decided they don’t like him.

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