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.
Even legendary journalists can fail to recognize the overwhelming popularity of expanding the background check system for firearms purchases. While it is now a well-known fact that the policy enjoys overwhelming support from the American public at large, some pundits remain unaware that it is also very popular in states that typically support conservative politicians.
NBC's Tom Brokaw is apparently one of those pundits. On the April 21 edition of NBC's Meet The Press, responding to the statement that the structure of the Senate explains why expanding background checks did not pass (an amendment had the support of 55 senators but needed 60 votes), Brokaw said that the proposal likely had very little support in the home states of Democrats who voted against the measure:
BROKAW: But in those states in which the senators voted against the background check, it's not even close to 90 percent in terms of wanting it, it's probably down in single digits in Montana and Arkansas and Alaska and North Dakota, the states that block it as Democrats. So you have to take that into consideration.
In fact, state polls in three of those four states found that at least 79 percent of respondents supported requiring a background check on every gun purchase (a broader measure than the one actually under debate).
According to a series of state polls commissioned by Mayors Against Illegals Guns, which supports the policy:
Media coverage of the debt ceiling frequently claims that raising the limit without simultaneous spending cuts would give President Obama a "blank check," repeating a pattern of promoting this false narrative -- or failing to correct it -- that occurred during the unprecedented brinkmanship of 2011. The phrase implies that the debt ceiling governs additional spending desired by the White House, when in fact it is a restriction on the executive branch's ability to borrow money to pay for spending measures already enacted by Congress.
Several media figures have claimed that President-elect Barack Obama won the election because he ran as a conservative and that notwithstanding Obama's victory, the United States is a conservative country. However, a poll conducted November 4-5 showed strong support for the progressive positions that Obama has articulated on the issues, rebutting the claim that the United States is a conservative country.
Commenting on the passage of a ballot initiative amending the California Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, Tom Brokaw said, "[W]e probably remain a center-right country." Brokaw did not note that several other ballot initiatives around the country suggest a rejection of a conservative social agenda.
Tom Brokaw did not challenge Sen. John McCain's false claim that under Sen. Barack Obama's health care plan, "[S]mall-business people who have employees without health insurance, that he is going to fine them if they don't have, have the insurance policy that they want, that Senator Obama wants them to have." In fact, while Obama has proposed requiring large businesses that do not provide health coverage to pay a percentage of their payroll into a National Health Insurance Exchange, small businesses would be exempt.
On NBC's Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw did not challenge Steve Schmidt's false claim that Sen. John McCain "called for the firing of Don Rumsfeld." In fact, the McCain campaign itself reportedly admitted that McCain did not call for Rumsfeld to be fired, or for his resignation.
On Meet the Press, citing a New York Post article reporting that Oprah Winfrey will not host Gov. Sarah Palin on her show before the presidential election, Tom Brokaw falsely suggested that Winfrey has hosted Sen. Barack Obama on her show during Obama's campaign for president. However, the Post article Brokaw cited itself reported that Winfrey has not hosted Obama since he began his presidential campaign and that Winfrey said she decided when she endorsed Obama not to use her show "as a platform for any of the candidates."
During an interview with Sen. Richard Burr, Tom Brokaw did not challenge Burr's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama has proposed "increased taxes -- and that's taxes across the board on the American people without exception." Obama has in fact proposed raising taxes only on households earning more than $250,000, while also calling for tax cuts for low- and middle-income families.
On MSNBC, Tom Brokaw aired an ad by Sen. John McCain in which McCain congratulates Sen. Barack Obama on the day of his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination, calling it a "[p]retty smart ad." Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell added: "Well, people who may have been turned off by the negative ads and the negative conversations of late. He may have won them over with ad like that. It's classy. It is a classy ad." But neither Brokaw nor Mitchell noted that, notwithstanding the ad's suggestion that McCain was taking the day off from attacking Obama, the McCain campaign issued numerous attacks against Obama on August 28.
Misquoting and misrepresenting what he described as a "pretty provocative" remark by former President Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw claimed that Clinton said, "[Y]ou've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X, you agree with everything that he stands for, but you have some real doubts about his experience. Candidate Y only believes in half the things but you really trust his experience -- who you gonna vote for?" But Clinton did not raise the issue of "experience" in his remarks, and Brokaw did not mention -- as he did when discussing Clinton's remarks earlier on MSNBC Live -- that Clinton said the hypothetical he described "has nothing to do with what's going on now."
On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw asked Al Gore if, on the subject of renewable energy, "Hillary Clinton reset this debate when she said there should be a summer holiday on the federal gas tax." But Brokaw did not mention that Sen. John McCain also proposed a gas-tax holiday or that one of his top advisers still touts the plan as "the best stimulus package we can have right now."
On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw did not challenge Carly Fiorina's assertion that "[t]he principal reason that [Sen. John McCain] voted against the Bush tax cuts is that they were not accompanied by fiscal restraint." In fact, the reason McCain gave for voting against the tax cuts in a May 26, 2001, statement on the Senate floor was that "so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."
On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw claimed that Rudy Giuliani's television ads airing in Florida "don't mention terrorism." In fact, just two days earlier, the Giuliani campaign launched a new ad, airing in West Palm Beach, that contains video footage of New York City in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
On Hardball, Tom Brokaw asserted that what makes Sen. John McCain "appealing" is that "[i]t's hard to track him. He's there with his arm around the president one moment and standing back and lobbing grenades then at the next minute." Brokaw made no mention of the fact that, while McCain has taken highly publicized stands against President Bush, he has also eventually capitulated in several of those instances.