Pulitzer Prize winners draw controversy
On Monday afternoon, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced, honoring the best works of journalism and other writing in the year 2013. The most notable winners came in the Public Service journalism category, where The Guardian and the Washington Post were jointly honored for publishing leaked documents about the secret NSA surveillance program. The Guardian was also cited for "helping ... to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy."
This was also by far the most controversial award handed out this year due to the illegal nature of the leaks. Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who provided the documents, was forced to flee to Russia after being charged with espionage and other crimes. However, both publications deserved the award and should be commended for their actions, in spite of the fact that Snowden illegally provided the documents.
This is not the first time the Pulitzers have drawn controversy for awarding their public service prize to articles involving leaked documents. In 1971, the Washington Post and the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, revealing multiple abuses by the United States government during the Vietnam War. As they did with the NSA leaks, the government argued that the Pentagon Papers would damage national security. However, the Supreme Court ruled that publication could continue. When it came time to hand out the Pulitzers the following spring, there was significant debate as to whether the Pentagon Papers should win any award. In the end, the New York Times won the Public Service prize, and the Pentagon Papers are today considered one of the most significant works of journalism in American history.
Similarly, the documents leaked by Snowden revealed massive intrusions on the privacy of American citizens. Prior to publication, the government had continually denied that this surveillance was happening. The leaks proved that not only was the government spying on its own citizens without warrants, but that it had lied about it. Regardless of whether the surveillance program is appropriate, Americans have the right to know what is going on in their own country.
Furthermore, a majority of Americans are strongly opposed to this surveillance program, thinking it goes too far. Most people consider it an unnecessary invasion of privacy. As a result of the leaks, there has been significant pressure on the government to end the program, and it has gathered at least moderate support from some politicians. There have already been several proposals to scale the NSA surveillance back, and many Americans feel these plans do not go far enough. As a result, we are having an important discussion about the balance between national security and privacy, a discussion we would have never been able to have if not for the work of the Washington Post and The Guardian.
Many supporters of the NSA program are unhappy that journalists would be rewarded for publishing classified information. They feel that if anything, the journalists should be punished, and certainly not given the most prestigious prize in American journalism. However, the Supreme Court has ruled in the Pentagon Papers case that publication of these leaked documents is protected by the First Amendment.
The words of Hugo Black in the majority opinion 42 years ago still apply today. "To find that the President has 'inherent power' to halt the publication of news by resort to the courts would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make 'secure.'" In other words, when the government is allowed to suppress news that reveals its wrongdoings, it will inevitably lead to tyranny.
Black went on to say that rather than being worthy of condemnation, the newspapers who published the Pentagon Papers "should be commended for serving the Purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers did precisely that which the Founding Fathers hoped and trusted they would do." If you simply substitute "NSA surveillance program" for "Vietnam War" in that quote, it will precisely apply to the current situation. The Founding Fathers guaranteed freedom of the press so the media could expose government wrongdoings. The Washington Post and The Guardian deserve their Pulitzer for what may be the most significant work of American journalism since the Pentagon Papers.
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