Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Leakers seek out advocacy journalists

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
June 12, 2013 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT