By Dylan Byers
Originally published April 14, 2014
Edward Snowden didn’t win a Pulitzer on Monday, but he might as well have.
In a move certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts, the Pulitzer Prize Board on Monday awarded The Guardian US and The Washington Post its coveted Public Service award for reporting on the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance practices.
The award was given for the “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security,” the committee said in its release. Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer Prize administrator, announced the winners shortly after 3 p.m. at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
Snowden declared the decision “a vindication.”
“Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government,” he said in a statement to The Guardian. “We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”
Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, likewise celebrated Snowden’s efforts.
“The public service in this award is significant because Snowden performed a public service,” he wrote in a message to staff.
At The Washington Post’s headquarters in Washington, executive editor Martin Baron triumphantly told his staff, “This newsroom will not be intimidated by power.”
The reporting on the former government contractor’s leaks was led by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan McAskill at The Guardian, Barton Gellman at the Post, and Laura Poitras, who worked with both newspapers.
The decision to give the two papers the award was greeted with overwhelming support from the American journalistic community.
“It’s clear to me that we are all better off knowing the extent of government surveillance — even the president has, reluctantly, admitted that,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, told POLITICO. “It’s a prize well-earned, and it seems to me the Pulitzer committee came to the right decision. It’s precisely because a different kind of society — Putin’s Russia, say — could never imagine this kind of journalism that we should value and honor it.”
“There are times when a nominee is bigger than a prize. This was such a time,” Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute, said. “The Pulitzer Prizes would have been diminished had they not recognized the Snowden revelations. Fortunately, they did.”
Meanwhile, Snowden’s critics in the U.S. government blasted the decision.
“Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted shortly after the announcement.
The question of whether to reward reporting associated with Snowden had loomed over board members for weeks leading up to the announcement: To honor the NSA reporting would inevitably be perceived as a political act, with the Pulitzer committee invoking its prestige on behalf of one side in a bitter national argument. In effect, it would be a rebuttal to prominent establishment voices in both parties who say Snowden’s revelations, and the decision by journalists to publish them, were the exact opposite of a public service.
Yet to pass on the NSA story would risk giving the appearance of timidity, siding with the government over the journalists who are trying to hold it accountable and ignoring the most significant disclosure of state secrets in recent memory. It would also look like a willful decision to deny the obvious: No other event has had as dramatic an impact on national and international debates over state surveillance and individual privacy.
The board tried to distance itself from politics: The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the journalists for their journalism, it said — it was by no means an endorsement of the leaker or the leaks. The same was true in 1972, when, after what The Associated Press then described as “unprecedented debate,” the Pulitzer committee gave The New York Times the Public Service award for Neil Sheehan’s reporting on the Pentagon Papers, which he had received from former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. At the time the award was given, Ellsberg was awaiting trial on charges of theft, which were later dropped.
But as in 1972, the political ramifications could not be ignored. To date, every public comment or legal ruling has been interpreted either as an endorsement or a rebuke of Snowden’s efforts. In March, President Barack Obama proposed that Congress overhaul the NSA’s electronic surveillance program — a move that Snowden called “a turning point” in the government’s mass surveillance of its citizens. Last December, in a move that Snowden described as vindication, a federal district judge ruled that the NSA surveillance Snowden exposed most likely violates the Constitution.