Canonize or Villainize?June 19, 2013 10:29 AM EDT ››› ARI RABIN-HAVT
No act in modern media culture can create as instantly polarizing a figure as the leaking of classified information. Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden -- the complexity of their human psyche was instantly reduced to binary choices by opposing extremes tugging to set a narrative.
They must be canonized or villainized.
Creating a media narrative focused on battles over the moral character of imperfect individuals inevitably draws the public away from necessary debates about our fundamental rights.
Bob Schieffer's commentary Sunday night on CBS was jarring, because after acknowledging, "I don't know yet if the government has overreached since 9/11 to reinforce our defenses, and we need to find out," the veteran newsman then turned his fire: "I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us."
Schieffer's statement followed former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw belittling Snowden as a "military washout" and Richard Cohen of The Washington Post describing him as a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood."
Whether or not Edward Snowden is a narcissist is inconsequential. Was the information he leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post accurate? What are the boundaries between the surveillance abilities our 21st century telecommunications infrastructure provides agencies like the NSA, and a free and open society?
Who Edward Snowden is as a person is insignificant to the question of whether or not we as a society should be having a debate - facts in hand - about the level of surveillance we are willing to tolerate.
There are legitimate grounds of inquiry into how individuals obtain clearances, the use of private contractors by the intelligence community, and if the disclosure of this information constitutes a criminal act. But the majority of attacks on Snowden don't seek answers to these questions. They attempt to distract us with a chorus of voices more interested in a conversation better suited to the naming of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's baby than the most significant discussion about our right to privacy of the past decade.
Snowden has been called a "hero," "traitor," "dropout," "narcissist," and "washout." He has been attacked by elites from all ends of the ideological spectrum in government and the media. And yes, he has put himself forward for these attacks. But just as the conversation the Pentagon Papers promoted was ultimately far more significant than the personality of Daniel Ellsberg, the conversation Edward Snowden has begun is far more important than any defects - or heroic qualities - he may possess.