The National Interest

The Prize for Fencing Stolen Goods

Prize-awarding committees sometimes use their decisions to make some sort of political or policy statement. The committee that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize seems to have done so with increasing frequency in recent years, giving the prize to recipients who represent current aspirations more than past accomplishments. One risk of this practice, beyond any controversial or questionable aspects of the particular statement being made, is that it debases the award itself by moving it farther from any connection with actual accomplishment. Those who award Pulitzer prizes have now done so by giving this year's prize in the public service category to the Washington Post and Guardian US for publishing purloined secrets about the National Security Agency. And the Pulitzer people have done so for motives less noble than those of the Nobel people.

The articles for which this prize was awarded were vehicles for making public the national security secrets that were stolen wholesale by a turncoat contractor who is now a guest of the Russians. Publication of the articles, in short, facilitated an act of treason. The NSA activities that were the initial focus of the publications were duly subject to well-established procedures of Congressional oversight. If members on the oversight committees who believed these operations were part of an appropriate balancing of security and privacy outnumbered members who had a different view, well, that's part of how representative democracy works. If disclosures of this type grabbed the public's attention after the public's preferences regarding national security had changed gradually but significantly in the years since 9/11, that's part of how the chronic attention deficit disorder in American politics tends to work. There is nothing unlawful or scandalous about this. What is scandalous is that the prize-winning publications have continued to print disclosure after disclosure that has nothing whatever to do with the privacy of the American public but instead only reveals to the world, including U.S. adversaries, details about legitimate foreign intelligence collection operations of NSA. There is no way this can plausibly be described as “public service.”

Set aside for the moment the substantive merits or demerits of what has been disclosed. Consider, as one might expect the Pulitzer committee to do, the quality and significance of the journalism. The publications that received the prize were not the ones that published these articles because their journalists were more skillful or harder working than those at other newspapers. They became the outlets because the secret-stealer and his immediate confederates chose them as newspapers with high reputations and wide readership. The material was dumped in their laps. Why should anyone receive a prize for that? This is the antithesis of enterprising, shoe-leather investigative journalism that ought to be recognized and rewarded. (The principal Washington Post journalist involved, Barton Gellman, has demonstrated his impressive skills as an investigative reporter on other subjects, but not on this one.)

The journalists and newspapers involved had to do some processing of the stolen material, of course. Here what stands out is the very bad editorial judgment displayed in publishing a stream of disclosures that is unconnected to the issue of the privacy of the American public and that serves no worthwhile public purpose.

The only apparent purpose served is to sell newspapers (and win Pulitzers) with material that is interesting and titillating. This episode is one more piece of evidence that the media in general—including apparently the prize-bestowing segment of the journalism profession—have such a strong and self-interested appetite for leaks that it is almost impossible to find objective reporting on the subject. Perhaps the “public service” Pulitzer category ought to be renamed “media service”.

Every past and present recipient of a Pulitzer holds an award that is a bit less valuable and distinctive today because of the debasement that has just occurred.

This piece originally appeared on The National Interest.