One of the interesting questions is how it came to be that the Guardian has become such a major player in international media. It is, after all, at its core a relatively small British newspaper with a daily print circulation of around 160,000. And yet it has broken major story after major story, sidelining ostensibly bigger players like the Washington Post and the New York Times. It was the leader in publishing the WikiLeaks documents, it uncovered Rupert Murdoch’s illegal phone tapping, and now it has been the clear leader in revealing Edward Snowden’s documents.
As Paul Farhi asks in the Washington Post, “The NSA and WikiLeaks revelations also raise a question: Why is a London-based news organization revealing so many secrets about the American government?”
What is its secret? The answer lies partially in in its ownership structure. In their classic work Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed how the ownership structure of newspapers plays a significant role in determining the scope and slant of its news coverage. Owners, stockholders, and advertisers play a huge role in determining, either subtly or overtly, editorial policy.
But the Guardian has an unusual financial base.
[Guardian editor Alan] Rusbridger explains that some of the Guardian’s willingness to experiment, and much of its independence, is a result of its unusual ownership structure. The newspaper has been owned for decades by a charitable foundation, the Scott Trust Limited, whose “core purpose” is to secure the paper’s editorial independence “in perpetuity.” The trust also owns a sister newspaper, the Observer.
It is this that has given the paper a greater degree of independence than other major media outlets. This does not, of course, mean that it is totally immune from the pressures to stay within the boundaries of what is considered ‘respectable’ opinion. But it does mean that it can tug at that leash much more strongly than other media.
The paper’s reputation for editorial independence was enhanced when it hired Glenn Greenwald as a regular columnist in August 2012. Major US media are quite willing to give a platform to political party hacks, right wing extremists, family members of their clan, racists, and bigots as long as they do not stray beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. But anyone who does so (like Greenwald or Chomsky or Herman or the vast number of serious academics and journalists who write for smaller periodicals) is shut out.
Greenwald explained to Farhi why he moved to the Guardian.
“For at least a couple of years before I went there, I found myself citing Guardian articles quite frequently in the work I was doing,” Greenwald said in an exchange of e-mails from Rio de Janeiro, where he resides with his Brazilian husband. “They were extensively covering vital stories that most U.S. media outlets were either ignoring or downplaying in areas of U.S. foreign policy, civil liberties, secrecy, whistleblowing and the like.”
In Greenwald’s view, American media outlets “tend to be far more reverent of and accommodating to political power than British media outlets, including the Guardian.”
It is easy to see why Snowden, looking for a news outlet that would not censor him in order to placate the US government, chose to go to Greenwald and the Guardian. That alone should give other major media pause to reflect on what it says about them. But they won’t. In fact, the Post editorial board responded to the leaks by writing an editorial that was indistinguishable from something that could have been dictated by the White House. (Apparently the initial headline was “How to Keep Edward Snowden From Leaking More NSA Secrets” but that was later changed to “Plugging the leaks in the Edward Snowden case”, presumably because the first one looked too obviously like a White House press release.)
[T]he first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations.
The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation. It’s hard to believe that the results would leave the 30-year-old contractor worse off than living in permanent exile in an unfree country. Sadly, the supposed friends of this naive hacker are likely advising him otherwise.
Apart from their cluelessness (Snowden is not a ‘hacker’, naïve or otherwise, since he didn’t break into any systems but was an authorized user) it is incredible that they would think that Snowden would be well served by giving himself up to a ruthless and vindictive government. Have they no idea how Bradley Manning has been treated? As John Cassidy says in the New Yorker,
I can’t condemn him for seeking refuge in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. If he’d stayed here, he would almost certainly be in custody, with every prospect of staying in a cell until 2043 or later. The Obama Administration doesn’t want him to come home and contribute to the national-security-versus-liberty debate that the President says is necessary. It wants to lock him up for a long time.
This Post editorial drew scathing responses from incredulity to ridicule, that it reveals itself to be jealous that the Guardian is cleaning its clock, with its monthly global readership being 23.2 million compared to the Post‘s 17.2 million. As Mike Masnick says, it is a little unseemly for a major newspaper to show its jealousy so openly.
We should all be glad that Snowden has no illusions about major US media and has such contempt for them.