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Media Weighs Competition, Collaboration In Snowden Coverage


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. News organizations pursuing the secrets leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have seesawed between rivalry and collaboration, resentment and achievement. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, each outlet sought to tame a story larger than any of them.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Back in the spring, Edward Snowden contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Her work on the consequences of the war on terror caught his eye. But Poitras needed help in assessing Snowden's credibility and asked for it from Bart Gellman, a former Washington Post reporter with expertise in national security matters. Gellman recalls trying to wrap his mind around what he was hearing, all the incredible secrets Snowden was promising.

BART GELLMAN: I was fundamentally trying to find out: Is this a crank or a put-up job or a trap or a pretender, or is it the real thing? And that took quite a bit of time.

FOLKENFLIK: He was the real thing. Gellman returned to The Post - on contract - to report and write stories showing the scope of the NSA's ambitions and reach. But Snowden appears to have wanted to make sure his message got out. Through Poitras, he reached out to Glenn Greenwald as well. Greenwald is an acerbic liberal columnist for The Guardian U.S., an American online offshoot of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

GLENN GREENWALD: There are a lot of unwritten rules that govern how U.S.-established media outlets report on the secret conduct of the U.S. government. And these rules are basically designed to neuter the reporting and to minimize its impact and to enable the government to control how the journalism proceeds.

FOLKENFLIK: Greenwald had been a lawyer and outspoken critic of Presidents Bush and Obama on civil liberties before joining The Guardian. Here, he was being cast in a reporter's role. Greenwald spoke to NPR from Brazil where he lives.

GREENWALD: I set out purposely to violate those rules, to ignore them, to break them. And so I knew that the way I was going to report it was going to be more aggressive, more defiant, more rapid, more frequent than is typically done.

FOLKENFLIK: Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger assigned staff reporters to work with Greenwald, but he was leading the paper on tricky terrain. Greenwald was a columnist on contract, not an employee, and he felt he had acquired the documents personally. Yet, The Guardian has vigorously pursued the story, and Greenwald expresses disdain for his rivals, saying that Washington Post is too deferential to authority. The Post's Gellman refused to return fire but pointed instead to his own continuing scoops.

GELLMAN: I hadn't been there in three years. And they have a new editor who didn't know me, and I didn't know him. But I never had the slightest hesitation from them about whether they wanted to do the story and wanted me to do the reporting.

FOLKENFLIK: U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with espionage. And over the summer, British officials suddenly demanded The Guardian turn over hard drives containing highly classified materials that Snowden had directly given to the paper.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, I didn't think that we had Snowden's consent to hand the material back. And I didn't want to help the U.K. authorities know what he had given us.

FOLKENFLIK: Here, Rusbridger spoke in a video posted by The Guardian.

RUSBRIDGER: I was happy to destroy it because it was not going to inhibit our reporting. We would simply do it from America and not from London.

FOLKENFLIK: Rusbridger explicitly cited First Amendment protections in the U.S. to say the material would be safe in America. British and American intelligence agencies had worked in concert, so would the journalists. Rusbridger invited the investigative outfit ProPublica on board, and then turned to a storied paper that have been playing catch-up since June, The New York Times. Jill Abramson is the paper's executive editor.

JILL ABRAMSON: And it was a kind of thing we kind of sort of knew about, but not really. And this was serious documentation of a level of intelligence-gathering activities that I think surprised me and surprised large segments of the public too.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times and The Guardian had collaborated in the past, yet as it happens, The Times was the one paper that Snowden had announced he did not trust. He pointed to fall 2004 when the paper held a story on the NSA after being asked by the White House not to go to print. Abramson says readers should take heart that 14 months later...

ABRAMSON: The Times, under great pressure from back then the Bush administration, did go ahead and publish our story revealing in that case warrantless eavesdropping.

FOLKENFLIK: With The Guardian and ProPublica, The Times just reported that the NSA had secretly trumped protections to secure access to encrypted emails, international phone calls and Web chats. The collaboration stirred some resentments inside The Guardian newsroom over giving away an exclusive. But by having an American partner, even one that Snowden didn't trust, The Guardian could demonstrate to British authorities that the story was beyond their control. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.