Jeremy Cai: Journalists Were Not Guilty

As Wikileaks exposed thousands of secret documents of government and revealed the surveillance or government on our private information, people panicked and started to think about the tradeoff between privacy and national security. There has been a fervent discussion over whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero. However, some people put the blames on the journalists who wrote about the events and disseminate the confidential information. The existence of free press enables journalists to write about truths and facts without considering about the inconvenience caused to the subject of the press. Journalists should only be responsible for their own ethics and deliver the information that people otherwise would not know about. In a country hailing the importance of democracy, should we charge journalists of impeding the national security?

Xiaoyi (Jeremy) Cai

Instructor: Eric Rettberg

Course name: Eng 1101

Date: November 1, 2014


It has been around four years since the first large scale information leakage on a website called Wikileaks caught our attention and people started to worry about their privacy being intruded on by government. Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange were the people we heard most about and were the most significant initializers of exposing confidential information. The attention of the public had always been directed toward the discussion about whether Snowden was a traitor or a hero of the nation. The Snowden discussion had been so intense that there were two articles addressing completely contradictory arguments published on the New Yorker on June 10, 2013.  (Article one, Article two)  However, some may argue that different presses and publishers were assisting the spreading of national secrets. Publishers and different presses played important parts in the dissemination of the information.  Even though some may argue that journalists should be charged because they worked with sources related with confidential information, they should not take the blame.

Outside the mainstream of the discussion, some authors discussed about the impact of journalism and its responsibilities in the Wikileaks event. “On the face of the statute, it could not only permit the indictment of Mr. Assange but of journalists who actually report about or analyze diplomatic or defense topics,” written in one of the editorials on the Wall Streets Journal on December 29th, 2010 by Floyd Abrams (who is also a lawyer considered an authoritative figure in the area related to the First Amendment). In his opinion, journalists should be punished because of the purposeful discussion and exaggeration of the national affairs related with top secrets. According to Floyd Abrams, anyone who “willfully’ retains or communicates information ‘relating to the national defense” should be indicted of impeding national security. Just on the contrary, journalists did not “willfully” write about the information. After closely examining what Abrams said, we should notice that only the people who willfully write about or discuss about the information should be charged of crime. Instead, what journalists did was just fulfilling what they were supposed to do, just as Guardian journalist David Marsh wrote about: “[journalists’ job is] investigating the stories and knowing how to tell them” (Digital Age Rewrites the Role of Journalism). Because of Wikileaks, Trevor Timm indicated on Freedom of The Press Foundation that there were more than 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released and nearly 392,000 US Army field reports exposed in a very short amount of time (Justice Department Investigation of AP Part of Larger Pattern to Intimidate Sources and Reporters). With the enormous amount of information released on the website, journalists did what were right to fulfill their job responsibilities — analyzing the impact of the unprecedented event and striving to deliver the information that the some people might not know about.

Writing extensively about how we should understand the motives behind Snowden, Greenwald and Assange in one of his articles on New Republic, Sean Wilentz cast insight into the event with in-depth explanation. Active in the political field and considered as “the American left’s most fearless political commentator,” Glenn Greenwald had his unique understanding of how the American society should be directed. He strongly held against the “brutal American imperialism abroad and tyrannical surveillance at home.” In 2010, he arranged a meeting with Julian Assange who was the founder of Wikileaks and started to pursue his standing in a novel way. The meeting proved that the purpose of Greenwald was not to endanger the political situation of our nation, while on the other hand Greenwald was delivering what he thought was valuable and essential for the public to know. He endured the inconvenience that the pursue of truth brought to him. The belief that what Greenwald helped Wikileaks do was “to sabotage ” the national security state instead of criticizing it turned out to be misleading (Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?, January 19, 2014).

In 2013, “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory had a heated exchange of ideas with the Guardian Journalist Glenn Greenwald, about whether Greenwald should be charged with a crime. As Greenwald himself clearly pointed out in the video clip,” … the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism – by going through the emails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory you [David Gregory] just embraced – being a ‘co-conspirator.’” Greenwald had a firm standing that journalists should not be charged of espionage, because they believed that having various perspectives was how problems got discovered and corrected in a democratic country. What’s more, they were not criminals because they used authorized sources and reported them to the public legally. What Greenwald did did not violate any law. Moreover, even though the information he wrote about was related to the Wikileaks, he did not help expose the confidential information to any foreign country. The exposure of the information did not, in any way, impeded the national security. To Greenwald, the assumption that “working with the sources relevant to the information leakage is a felony” was inaccurate at the very beginning (DAVID GREGORY TO GLENN GREENWALD: ‘Why Shouldn’t You Be Charged With A Crime?). Journalists should not be charged of felony just because they wrote about the topics and investigated the information and sources related to the leakage of national confidential resources. Admittedly, because of the development of information technology and increasing sources of information, journalists are under pressure to tailor their articles in order to please the taste of targeted audiences. However, the nature of journalism has never been changed. According to Stephen J. A. Ward, from Center For Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin-Madison, “[journalism’s] principles are justified by reference to broader social and political principles. For example, the journalistic function of acting as watchdog on government is justified, ultimately, by a commitment to liberal democracy,” enclosed in the definition of journalism ethics. (Nature of Journalism Ethics)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

—– The First Amendment

From the foundation of our nation, we can reach a conclusion that the freedom of speech, the freedom of press and the freedom of religion should all be guaranteed. In other words, any news media and press should not be censored by government and government has no right to block or hinder any publication of news and expression of ideas. Just to the opposite of what was emphasized by the First Amendment, the Obama administration carried out intensive surveillance over the leakage of information and “has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined” in the last five years.( Justice Department Investigation of AP Part of Larger Pattern to Intimidate Sources and Reporters) In the end, it caused the discouragement among journalists as a whole.


Fig. 1. A cartoon about Wikileaks

People are inevitably dependent on the information disseminated by news and press. Only with freedom of press and speech are we able to call for a stop when something goes wrong. Also, as shown by the cartoon above, the freedom of speech enables us to predict and foresee the danger and risks we would not be aware of without enough information. If Snowden hadn’t exposed such an enormous amount of top secrets, we wouldn’t have known the affairs that U.S. government was doing behind its citizens. I do think that Snowden should take responsibility for what he had done even though he made us aware of the intrusion of government into our privacy. However, as the servants of people who enable us to read and keep track of what’s happening in the world, journalists should never be given the title of “criminals” by just writing about the confidential information leaked by Wikileaks. Instead of finding a scapegoat who takes the most responsibility, what really matters is whether we can learn from our mistakes and embrace the advantages granted by our democratic system.

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