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An NSA Buffet That Leaves Us Hungry

In Blog on December 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

This month, the American public saw what happens when reporters do in-depth profiles of an institution or individual with whom they have a shared history.  The results often don’t serve journalism very well.

As it happens, both pieces concerned the embattled National Security Agency.  In both cases, the reporters in question got unprecedented access because their subjects trusted them and knew they would be treated well.

CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled NSA, amping up the agency’s positive profile a few megawatts. Viewers got an inside look into the secretive agency, virtually strolled through its hallways,  even heard from telegenic young staffers who work there.  The cameras also took us inside the office of the NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander. But all this access came at a price —  critical journalism that asks the difficult questions and won’t settle for the less-than-forthright answers.

To his credit reporter John Miller told his audience that he used to work at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  He also stated that Alexander agreed to the interview because he believed “NSA has not told its story very well.”

It is entirely appropriate to give a subject of a major story the opportunity to make his case, and to make it fully.  But what was missing was the opportunity for NSA critics to challenge those assertions.  Also missing were tough questions from Miller himself asking why NSA felt obliged to lie to Congress, and whether its contracting procedures needed a little retooling.  How in the world did an IT contractor get the access that Snowden had? Did Alexander understand why Americans were so concerned about the capture of so much data?  After all, phone numbers alone can be the keys to much more information.  Had this virtually unsupervised effort  truly saved lives?

I agree with journalist critics, and there are many, that CBS failed to fully inform and instead served as a public relations vehicle for a government agency.  If  NSA wants to make its case, let it buy full-page ads, place op-eds in The New York Times, make its officials available for interviews on the Sunday talk shows.  NSA officials can do cross-country tours and field questions from local reporters.  But CBS should never have agreed to such uncritical coverage.

It will be interesting to see if journalists are as quick to critique Barton Gellman’s extremely sympathetic profile of NSA leaker Edward Snowden for The Washington Post. After all, journalists tend to take the side of people who leak information to them.

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