Tompkins on Bell and Owen and Khorana and Henrichsen, 'Journalism after Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State'

Emily Bell, Taylor Owen, Smitha Khorana, Jennifer Henrichsen, eds.
Andrew Tompkins

Emily Bell, Taylor Owen, Smitha Khorana, Jennifer Henrichsen, eds. Journalism after Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. xvi + 326 pp. $25.00 (papep), ISBN 978-0-231-17613-2.

Reviewed by Andrew Tompkins (Drew University) Published on Jhistory (November, 2018) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version:

For those even slightly familiar with the news stories of mass government surveillance programs and digital privacy violations over the past half-decade, the name Edward Snowden very often comes to mind. The subject of numerous journalistic exposés, academic studies, and even a feature motion picture, Snowden, once a private government contractor, leaked sizable amounts of classified information regarding global NSA data-gathering programs in May 2013. These revelations concerned the activities of not only the United States, but also its other “Five Eyes” partners, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which together had crafted an incredibly complex intelligence network. In addition to the public backlash that ensued because of his leaks, perhaps more than has resulted from any other whistleblower before or since, Snowden introduced new and fundamental questions regarding democracy, privacy, security, and secrecy in the modern era. For this reason, he remains an iconic figure for those both in favor of and against extensive digital national security efforts. 

Often lost in the wider Snowden story line, however, was the fact that he had help in initially disseminating his commandeered NSA documents. Breaking from his intelligence training, he placed his trust in journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, both of the Guardian, and filmmaker Laura Poitras, who later created the Snowden-centered documentary Citizenfour (2014), to responsibly publish his findings. Their resulting stories and the political and social fallout that followed since has had far-reaching effects on the field of journalism. Emily Bell et al.’s Journalism after Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State thoughtfully reflects on these complicated developments in a compelling and comprehensible fashion.   

Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Colombia University’s Journalism School, and Taylor Owen, the Tow Center’s former research director, lead this publication’s editorial team. Smitha Khorana (a Tow Fellow) and Jennifer Henrichsen (a Fulbright scholar) lent additional support. With help from the Knight Foundation, the articles were sourced from Tow’s “Journalism after Snowden” research project in fall 2014, which, as Bell, Owen, and Khorana note in the book’s introduction, was intended “to understand the mechanics of the Snowden story, and to study the legal and technical implications for journalism in the wake of these disclosures” (p. 9). In many respects, they accomplished what they set out to do. Yet this work’s utility goes beyond these addressed objectives. Three aspects in particular illustrate its merits as an educational text and its probable longevity in the body of twenty-first-century intelligence histories and journalistic studies.    

The volume’s first distinction is undoubtedly its who’s who of contributors. As the philosophical and logistical implications of Snowden’s leaks continue to unravel in the scholarly literature five years on, the canon of academic studies dedicated to it is now just truly surfacing. Still, Bell and her editorial coterie offer their readers an accomplished roster of professionals known for their judicious publications regarding it. Some are highly steeped in the literature of the topic to date; others were intimately associated with the 2013 revelations themselves. 

The first name of note is Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist who served as one of Snowden’s initial contacts in May of 2013, and has since written extensively on government surveillance. Perhaps the most notable of these works was his No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (2014). Greenwald’s contribution here, titled “The Surveillance State,” for instance, chronicles his own experiences with Snowden; provides a history of other modern whistleblowers, such as Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971; and offers readers strategies to avoid corporate data-sharing. A second figure is Julia Angwin. Currently a senior correspondent at ProPublica and formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Angwin also authored the book Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2014). Her piece in this collection, “Digital Security for Journalists,” outlines a digital and analog toolkit that journalists have at their disposal to protect the identity of potentially apprehensive informants. “Just as a journalist who prepares for an interview is more successful,” she attests, “journalists who prepare strategies for secure communications before they need them are likely to be more successful at winning over nervous sources” (p. 117). Although these and other scholars in this volume offer astute and even personal anecdotes central to these issues, their articles, in fundamental ways, simply would not have been possible without the leaked Snowden documents. Thus, Emily Bell’s transcribed 2015 interview with Snowden, titled “A Conversation with Edward Snowden,” emerges as arguably the most relevant and poignant piece of them all. In it, Snowden presents his own insights on an array of topics, including his personal relationship with the press, his impact on state surveillance literacy, and his impressions of what an intelligence community is “supposed to be involved in,” and how he feels “we can fix” it (pp. 69,71). Far from a simple overview, the probing interview highlights Snowden’s sensible command of these topics, and demonstrates why he remains the foremost public figure on questions of surveillance.          

The volume’s accessibility is its second significant quality. Though the various writers could easily wallow in arcane critical analysis, they refrain from doing so, and instead place a primacy on pragmatic academic utility. Its broad-stroke chronicling of the recent struggles between the state, press, and corporations around the globe makes it a suitable primer for novice students, while its targeting of issues specific to journalism today can inform and update those already deeply familiar with the existing literature. Aside from the interested academic, any university courses on contemporary journalism, intelligence studies, or constitutional law, for example, could benefit greatly from it.    

Indeed, the Snowden story continues to incite debates about net neutrality, the right to privacy, and the legality or morality of the former contractor’s actions that initially brought them to the public, to name a few. This selection reminds us that these discussions also extend to inquiries regarding the media’s shifting role in the surveillance state and postindustrial corporate world, a largely vacant scholarly niche. Thus, a third strength of this work can be found in the profound depth of inquiries made into journalism’s challenges, defeats, and victories in these regards, especially during the post-9/11 era. This applies not only to correspondents’ capacities to report without scrutiny or incarceration or to their abilities to safeguard anonymous sources, though these topics also remain central to the text’s overarching narrative. Rather, these articles engage with much deeper philosophical conundrums with the highest of stakes. Cogently articulated reflections regarding the current status and ownership of the “free press” (as in Emily Bell’s “Silicon Valley and Journalism”) and the changing relationship between the NSA and the press before and after mid-2013 (as in Siobhan Gorman’s “The Snowden Effect on the NSA and Reporting”), for instance, are imperative offerings in this sense. Between its top contributors, its approachability, and its breadth of scope, Journalism after Snowden offers an extensive survey of all these topics and more.

But no book is without its limitations. If there is one notable shortcoming of this effort, it stems not from any one author’s insight or analysis, but instead from the editors’ selection of articles that were supposed to address the impacts of Snowden’s revelations on the field of journalism. Though most of the articles certainly do, two ostensibly miss the larger mark: Patrick Weil’s “Edward Snowden, His Passport, and the Legal Identity of Americans” and David Sanger’s “A New Age of Cyberwarfare.” Both reside in part 3, a subsection that, as the editors contend, analyzes the “building blocks that enable the surveillance state, and how [these] elements engage with the practice and constitutional role of journalism” (p. 14). Weil, as the title perhaps suggests, examines the judicial ramifications of the US government’s revocation of Snowden’s passport while en route to Moscow. Though thoroughly astute on the Supreme Court-established functions of a passport and of Snowden’s present legal status as a US citizen, Weil never confronts issues pertinent to the press or even the intelligence community more broadly. Likewise, Sanger’s article narrates many of the controversial actions taken by the Bush- and Obama-era intelligence communities as revealed by Snowden and other leakers, and subsequently the media, yet he only narrates the press’s simple dissemination of these stories, not the resulting consequences for journalists as a whole. Though both make convincing offerings in their own regard that would unquestionably serve other forums well, their roles here appear somewhat ambiguous, as the former fails to address the section’s central themes completely, while the latter only does so tangentially. Regardless of this slight critique, however, Journalism after Snowden emerges as an arresting collection of articles dedicated to assessing underrepresented strata of rapidly shifting digital-age ethics and power dynamics.   

As any good work of its urgency does, Bell et al.’s work ultimately offers us a continuation, not a conclusion, of an infinitely long conversation. For this reason, it certainly deserves consideration, as the future of pervasive technologies, state power, and individual freedoms will continue to evolve in unforeseen ways. Wearing his wisdom on his sleeve, Snowden himself encapsulates both the all-encompassing tone of this compilation while also providing a powerful talking point from which to proceed. Arguing that “You cannot have an open society without open communication," the epitome of twenty-first-century whistleblowing framed his concerns for the future of the free world around the role of the fourth estate and their various fetters, both visible and invisible (p. 65). In the end, Snowden and the commentators in this volume leave us with a sentiment that not only applies to our current era in journalism, but to history of enlightened civilization more generally: that ideal democratic sovereignty very often emanates not from the swing of the sword, but from the stroke of the pen. 

Citation: Andrew Tompkins. Review of Bell, Emily; Owen, Taylor; Khorana, Smitha; Henrichsen, Jennifer, eds., Journalism after Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

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