Democracy & Elections Executive Branch Intelligence Surveillance & Privacy

The Washington Post and Guardian Pulitzers: I Dissent

Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 8:30 AM

I know it is rude and churlish to offer anything but warm congratulations when former colleagues win a major prize—much less journalism's most prestigious award.

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I know it is rude and churlish to offer anything but warm congratulations when former colleagues win a major prize—much less journalism's most prestigious award.

I know I am courting a barrage of hostile tweets and emails with these words. I know as well that I am on the losing end of elite opinion on these subjects—that we are settling on a narrative that makes a public interest triumph out of journalism I regard as shoddy and beneath the great names of the organizations that produced it. But for whatever it's worth (not much) and to whomever, I dissent from the Pulitzer Committee's decision to give its public service award to either the Guardian or the Washington Post.

The Pulitzer Board's citation to these two organizations has a faintly comic air. The Post the board congratulates not merely for "its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency" but for "authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security."

For the Guardian, by contrast, the board rather conspicuously omits any reference to authority or to insight, noting only that the paper had "help[ed] through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy." The latter is at least true.

The commendation to the Post, by contrast, involves an assertion of fact that is, at a minimum, highly contestable. The Post got big things wrong in the stories the board honors. It reported that NSA has access to the servers of internet companies—a fact it then changed in the story without running a correction, for example. It grossly misreported, using entirely true facts, on a compliance audit so as to present it as suggesting nearly the opposite of what it actually shows. And it frequently reported on the most routine sort of overseas intelligence collection, collection of precisely the sort the law authorizes, in breathless tones suggestive of gross impropriety. The Post's reporting has indeed been authoritative, though not because it has been good or consistently accurate; its authority has been part of the problem. Its coverage has often been the opposite of insightful. And it has in fact served to help the public misunderstand the issues on which it was intended to shed light.

As to the Guardian, well, if sparking a debate is enough to earn the Pulitzer's coveted public service medal, then sure. Congrats. I would note, however, that merely sparking a debate is an exceedingly low standard. There was a time, and it wasn't very long ago, when this medal meant something more, when "aggressive reporting" meant more than being a vehicle to shovel leaked documents to the public, with stops along the way for obligatory government comment, for fawning characterizations of one's own sources, and for tendentious claims about what those documents say.

In 1999 and 2000, when I was a young editorial writer at the Post, the Post won the public service medal two years running. In 1999, it was for a series analyzing and reinvestigating a series of police shootings in D.C. The following year, it was for the incredibly moving work of Kate Boo in investigating abuse in D.C. group homes for the mentally disabled. I remember the meetings in the Post newsroom the days those awards were announced, partly because I was personally close to several of the reporters involved but also because the work was journalism at its very finest craft and a source of huge institutional pride for the paper for which I worked. They passed a test much higher than the "sparked a debate" test, a test that the Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology, I might add, pass with some regularity, and they were not merely transit stops for leaks from others. They passed a test that involved building a story and reporting it richly for the public out of what was not previously there. This kind of journalism still exists. This year's Pulitzer finalist, according to the board's citations, went to Newsday, for "its use of in-depth reporting and digital tools to expose shootings, beatings and other concealed misconduct by some Long Island police officers, leading to the formation of a grand jury and an official review of police accountability." How sad it is that such work today comes in second—and how much sadder what now defeats it.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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