Two newspapers that uncovered the vast scope and sweep of the nation’s surveillance apparatus were awarded journalism’s highest honor today when they were named winners of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in public service journalism.
The Guardian US and The Washington Post both received the award for the revelations provided by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden; those revelations, especially around the workings of the National Security Agency (NSA), sparked global outrage for much of the past year as it became apparent that the national security state was far more invasive than even many lawmakers in the U.S. imagined.
The Pulitzer Board said that the United Kingdom-based Guardian deserved commendation for its “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.” The Post’s stories, the board said in announcing the award, “helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.”
In a statement, Snowden said he was “grateful to the committee for their recognition of the efforts of those involved in the last year’s reporting…Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognises was work of vital public importance.
“This decision reminds us that what no individual conscience can change, a free press can. My efforts would have been meaningless without the dedication, passion, and skill of these newspapers, and they have my gratitude and respect for their extraordinary service to our society. Their work has given us a better future and a more accountable democracy.”
According to Sig Gissler, who administered the awards, the two series of stories “were complementary.”
“The focus is on the revelations and how the reporting enhanced public understanding and stimulated public discussion.”
The awarding of prizes to the two outlets however immediately spared a backlash in national security circles, where Snowden is viewed not so much a whistleblower as a traitor, and the newspapers that printed the documents he pilfered as his enablers.
“I think it is disgraceful,” said New York Republican Congressman Peter King. “National Security was betrayed. Lives were put at risk.”
King compared the revelations to journalists who may have enabled Hitler or Stalin or revealed the names of Civil Rights workers in the 1960’s.
“Journalism is not a moral abstraction. It comes with rights and responsibilities,” he added. “The NSA is associated with George Bush, as a conservative type of apparatus and this just shows the liberal bias and mindset of most of the media. It is traitorous behavior.”
Gissler declined to state how much of the political backdrop was reflected in the internal discussions of the prize committee, but would only say that “It was thoroughly discussed.”
“In public debate before the Pulitzer board met, the biggest dispute was about whether The Guardian was too biased and did not illustrate the journalistic principles of the kind the Pulitzer usually recognizes,” said Roy Harris, the author of Pulitzer’s Gold, a history of the public service award.
Harris suggested that the awarding of The Guardian and The Post together was a “safer” choice than awarding the prize to The Guardian alone, even though the U.K.-based paper ran the first Snowden leaks.
“Including The Guardian in the public service award seems to suggest that there is a new recognition that makes it more acceptable to have a point of view, as a blogger would, in the Pulitzer Prize mix.”
The awarding of the prizes reveal the global and changing face of the news business. It was not The Guardian that won but the Guardian US, the paper’s digital and American counterpart. Greenwald lives in Brazil, and his reporting partner, Laura Poitras, lives in Berlin.
Both left The Guardian last year to begin a news startup funded by Internet billionaire Pierre Omidyar called The Intercept. Despite starting with a flourish, that site has gone quiet in recent days as it undergoes a reorganization.
In other Pulitzer categories, The Boston Globe won for its reporting of the bombing of the city’s marathon, while novelist Donna Tartt won in Fiction for her much-praised novel, The Goldfinch.