Although many commentators have raised questions about Snowden’s leaks, the journalists who have dug into the NSA files he provided are doing the job that democracy depends on them to do: getting information that details government actions and prompting a badly needed debate. It’s one of the most important ways to hold government accountable for the use of its power. Our ability to judge whether it acted appropriately or abusively and to act as responsible citizens is buttressed by journalists who are skilled at finding and keeping confidential sources, who know how to dig through copious records or amounts of data, who have learned how to build a story from a tip or a leak, and who are accurate, honest, rigorous and fair-minded.
Now, I don’t want to whitewash what’s happening in the media right now. There are plenty of worrisome trends. As a whole, media outlets are less interested than they used to be in accuracy, objectivity and solid coverage, and more interested in advocacy, persuasion and entertainment. Even at the largest papers, cutbacks have reined in their ability to cover the world and to launch expensive investigative work. The recent rise of alternatives — such as the non-profit ProPublica and the investigative reporting venture just announced by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — may go some distance toward recovering what’s been lost, but they’re also an acknowledgement that we have lost ground.
And we’ve done so precisely at a time when we face a real challenge in constraining the reach of government into our lives. Its powers of monitoring and surveillance are astonishing and are being used aggressively. It is classifying secret information wholesale, it is vigorously seeking to prosecute leaks, and it is trying to intimidate journalists: All of these are signs of a national security state that is determined to bulk up.