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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
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 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT