Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Leakers seek out advocacy journalists

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Liberal journalists have been recipients of some big scoops
  • He says leakers who once might have only gone to mainstream media now have other options
  • Glenn Greenwald says U.S. press has a history of behavior subservient to government
  • Kurtz: Role of mainstream media as a neutral arbiter may be eroding

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

(CNN) -- When Edward Snowden decided to expose the administration's massive surveillance program, the CIA contractor turned to journalists he knew would be sympathetic.

By approaching the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, a liberal columnist for a liberal newspaper, and filmmaker Laura Poitras, who Greenwald has credited with "exposing truths that are adverse to U.S. government policy," Snowden was following an increasingly common path for leakers of sensitive material: Find a like-minded soul in the media. And in doing so, they are bypassing the establishment press, which is then forced to play catch-up.

True, Snowden wound up sharing part of his scoop with national security reporter Bart Gellman, who wrote about the government's Internet surveillance for his former newspaper, the Washington Post. But the fact that Gellman and the Post balked at the source's request that they commit to publishing all of his batch of Power Point slides—prompting Snowden to say he could no longer give Gellman the story exclusively—underscores why some leakers have grown wary of journalists who play by a traditional set of rules. Gellman has said the Post consulted with administration officials about the story and withheld some details at their request.

Opinion: Why NSA spying scares the world

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

When I asked Greenwald on CNN why the source had approached him, he cited a history of "supine behavior, subservient behavior in the American media." Greenwald pointed to multiple examples of news organizations having sat on classified information "at the request of the U.S. government," most notably The New York Times delaying publication of the Bush administration's warrantless phone surveillance for nearly a year.

Greenwald told me he's not worried about getting caught up in a leak investigation, but if Rep. Peter King has his way, such journalists would be in legal jeopardy. "If they knew that this was classified information -- I think action should be taken, especially on something of this magnitude," the New York Republican told CNN's Anderson Cooper. He added that in such major cases "there is an obligation, both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something which would so severely compromise national security." Fortunately, there is no chance that King's position, which would criminalize journalism, will become law.

Greenwald also works for the American subsidiary of a British paper, which may have felt more freedom to expose U.S. secrets than its American counterparts. (British media are more cautious at home because of their country's strict libel laws.)

If that was Snowden's reasoning—and he certainly put his full trust in Greenwald, inviting him to his Hong Kong hideout—he is hardly alone.

Twice in the last year, sources with liberal leanings have handed bombshell material to David Corn, the liberal Mother Jones reporter and MSNBC commentator.

Where is Edward Snowden?
Manhunt under way for NSA leaker
Who is Edward Snowden's girlfriend?

One was Scott Prouty, the bartender who secretly recorded Mitt Romney saying at a fundraiser that he would never get the votes of 47% of Americans who had become addicted to government benefits. Prouty not only gave the tape to Corn after communicating through an intermediary—Jimmy Carter's grandson—but revealed his identity to MSNBC's Ed Schultz.

Opinion: Your biggest secrets are up for grabs

It was his "civic duty" to leak the tape of the top-dollar fundraiser, Prouty said: "There's a lot of people that can't afford to pay $50,000 for one night, one dinner, and I felt an obligation for all the people who can't afford to be there."

Curtis Morrison, a liberal Kentucky activist, turned to Corn after secretly recording Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his strategists discussing ways to discredit actress Ashley Judd, a potential challenger for his seat. Morrison came out publicly on the liberal website Salon, saying: "I don't subscribe to the lie that activism and journalism can be separated." That, of course, runs counter to the prevailing view in the Old Media, although newer players from the Huffington Post to the Daily Caller delight in delivering journalism with a topspin.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange split the difference when he did his massive dump of State Department cables in 2010, giving them to the Guardian but also to two establishment outlets, The New York Times and Germany's Der Spiegel.

But after the Times published a critical profile of Assange, he bypassed the paper months later in releasing a new batch of 250,000 documents to the Guardian and other European outlets. (The Guardian thoughtfully shared its haul with the Times.)

Snowden, like Assange (now holed up in London's Ecuadoran embassy while he ducks sexual assault charges), wanted to control the story. That is evident in the video interview he gave Greenwald, in which Snowden speaks quietly but passionately about being appalled by the surveillance state. But that personalized approach has also made him the overriding issue, an easier and more polarizing debate for the media than government spying and illegal disclosures.

The same technology that enabled the administration to keep track of Google searches and Facebook postings also allowed Snowden to gain instant fame by beaming his image around the world.

Once sources who wanted public attention had little choice but to approach the mainstream media; that's why Mark Felt dealt with Bob Woodward and Daniel Ellsberg went to the Times. But although Snowden opted to work within the media system, some activists now prefer to be their own broadcasters.

Opinion: Massive spying on Americans is outrageous

James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who pulled off stings against ACORN and National Public Radio, didn't have to hand his undercover video to a news organization. While he has sometimes favored conservative outlets, O'Keefe packages the material himself (and, in the case of ACORN, engaged in misleading editing). O'Keefe told me in 2011 that "reporters do a lot of stenography in this country," but that "real investigative reporting is showing things for what they are."

O'Keefe's contention that the press isn't doing its job carries echoes of Greenwald's argument, from the other end of the spectrum, that the press is subservient to political power. Little wonder, then, that journalists such as Greenwald and Corn are grabbing big scoops that once might have belonged to the MSM.

What may be lost is the media's role as neutral arbiter, a sense that they are holding their sources accountable even while disseminating their information. But in the age of the partisan press, traditional journalists may simply have to take a back seat to those more in tune with the leakers.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT