The public interest test for damaging America’s reputation

Many times journalists worry they lack any influence beyond their audience. In some cases, a journalist can point to a Pulitzer or another award as a sign of influence. For others, they find influence through an article that changes a particular policy or decision. Some, like Harold Evans, can point to successful campaigns on issues. Few, if any, thought, can claim to have had the influence Glenn Greenwald[1] and the Guardian have combined to achieve.[2]

They have weakened America’s reputation for protecting individual rights. The PEW graphic shows their success.[3]

The outcome vindicates those who advocate adversarial journalism. Adversarial journalism seeks political change as defined by the journalist. In this case, the position to oppose was the National Security Agency (NSA) mission to monitor the web and use it as surveillance. Greenwald and the Guardian disclosed what they believed to be illegal and out of control “spying”. They both want certain programmes to stop and for greater oversight of the remaining programmes. Taken on the surface, these are laudable goals. Yet, they raise the public interest test associated with all journalism, even adversarial journalism.

Was the story in the public interest? The public interest argument has to consider the following. Were the programmes illegal? Was the political and institutional oversight insufficient? Were the national security programmes out of control? The public interest test means a journalist has to balance the harm of such disclosure against its benefits. In other words, what is the positive outcome the journalist wants to achieve beyond simply revealing top-secret documents? Are the revelations the best or only way to improve the oversight of such programmes, to check their legality, or consider whether the programme is out of control? In many ways, the fundamental position has not changed. Aside from greater “transparency”[4], which has no effect on the fundamental programmes, the NSA’s role has not changed. The NSA serves a legitimate national security role. Its work continues to have legal and political oversight with an internal compliance programme. What remains, therefore, is the public interest test.

What have the stories achieved? Even in the new post Snowden context, we have to ask what has been achieved. We can see that the stories have weakened the United States’ reputation for protecting individual liberties. The stories have constrained its ability to collect intelligence. Targets will have increased encryption, changed methods, and altered behaviour patterns. The revelations have tainted relations with America’s allies. The stories have strained the government’s national security relationship with technology and telecommunications companies. Are these outcomes in the public interest? Why is it in the public interest that America’s soft power be eroded? Which public do these outcomes serve? If the government has a democratically mandated responsibility to protect the public, is it in the public interest to weaken the capacity to discharge that responsibility? Has journalism served the public interest or has it served the private interest of journalist and the media company? Perhaps that public interest question needs to be answered.



[1] Greenwald was not alone in the work as he was supported by Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange as well as David Miranda (accessed 20 July 2014)

[2] The one immediate exception is Bernstein and Woodward with the Washington Post and the Watergate investigation. The immediate difference, though, is that Watergate was in the context of congressional investigations.

[3] Both Greenwald and the Guardian would point to other outlets and writers as creating the effect. Then again, with a story this big, other journalists and outlets would be interested.  We must be careful to avoid exaggerating the Snowden effect, in the way the Snowden effect has been exaggerated for effect as the PEW survey shows countries still view America favorably and it has not harmed America’s overall image. However, it remains problematic and a source of encouragement to those who oppose America both political and philosophically. That the stories have not had an overall effect raises the public interest again, but in a different way, if no significant change has occurred either in the NSA or the way America has been perceived, what was the political change the stories sought to achieve? The Pew survey can be found here: (accessed 19 July 2014)

[4] The transparency, while important, does not change the underlying programme. Moreover, such transparency reveals the limited nature of the NSA’s work.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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