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The NSA story isn’t “journalistic malfeasance” — it’s a story that is evolving in real time

Mathew Ingram

There have been a host of critical responses to the recent stories from the Guardian and Washington Post about the NSA and its massive phone-data and internet surveillance programs, and many of them have taken aim at the reporting involved in those stories — which some allege has been shoddy and incomplete. In one recent post in particular, freelance journalist Joshua Foust said that the stories have amounted to “journalistic malfeasance” because much of what they have been reporting has turned out to be wrong.

But even more than that, Foust — who writes about counter-terrorism and used to work for the American Security Project — argues that these errors mean the Guardian (please see disclosure below) and Post stories were rushed into print with little or no regard for the facts, and suggests this is part of a regrettable trend towards breaking news without spending enough time to verify what is being reported. But is that really fair?

Both sides have their version of events

In fact, much of the evidence Foust provides to counter the Guardian seems to be based on a foundation just as shaky as anything the newspaper reported. There may be some well-founded doubts about former CIA staffer Edward Snowden’s credibility on some aspects of the PRISM program, but Foust seems to take as gospel public statements from NSA officials and others in the Obama administration, as well as anonymous sources who are quoted by other outlets — and ignores evidence that contradicts his own conclusions.

Ryan Singel, a former Wired editor who now runs a startup called Contextly, notes a few of these cases in comments posted on Foust’s piece, which appeared on Medium (where comments appear alongside the sentences to which they refer). For example, Foust says the Guardian incorrectly stated that other phone companies have also had their data collected by the NSA, not just Verizon — a claim he scoffs at. But as Singel notes, there are reliable reports that other companies have been part of the same program.

Foust also questions the Guardian‘s statement that this type of data collection wasn’t envisioned by the Patriot Act, and therefore came as a surprise to many, but as Singel points out in a comment, even one of the authors of the Patriot Act says the law was never intended to permit that kind of mass surveillance. And while Foust says the collection described is arguably legal, Singel makes the case that it could well not be, based on a recent decision from the Supreme Court.

The idea that the NSA program gave the spy agency “direct access” to the servers of companies like Google and Facebook is another Foust target: he points out that subsequent reporting showed the PRISM system may well be just a way of automating the production of data under FISA court orders, rather than providing indiscriminate access to tech company servers. But he ignores the fact that the kind of lock-box system the New York Times and others described could easily fall within the term “direct access.”

It’s not a single story but a process

The point is that the stories the Guardian and Post reported were just the beginning of an evolving story about a top-secret program — one whose details are sketchy at best, and one whose very existence was likely to be denied by not only the NSA but plenty of other sources who were happy to answer phone calls from journalists with their own spin on events.

The reality is that some or all of the stories we’ve seen about PRISM and the NSA would likely never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the Guardian and Post reports. Does this qualify as “journalistic malfeasance?” Hardly. In some ways, it’s a perfect example of the idea of news as a process rather than a finished product — reports about a secret document trigger a host of other reports, and eventually more of the truth emerges.

Is it messy? No questions. Have there been mistakes? Yes (and it’s true that some of those probably haven’t been identified as transparently as they should have been). But it’s hardly malfeasance.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM/paidContent.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto

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