How the Guardian protects state secrets, and weak reporting at Ad Age

August 6, 2013

1. How the Guardian protects America’s national security:

Last week, the Guardian released another Edward Snowden-procured red-hot document — a “top secret,” 32-page National Security Agency training manual for a program initiated in 2008 called XKeyscore that purportedly allowed NSA analysts to vacuum up data on Internet browsing activity around the world.

“The NSA boasts in training materials that the program…is its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet,” wrote the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald.

That was quite a scoop, though I suppose I’m not alone in no longer being surprised at anything the NSA is snatching up. But what did surprise me was that as I scrolled through the electronic version of the document, four of the 32 pages were blacked out, because, according to the Guardian’s explanation: “This slide has been redacted as it reveals specific NSA operations.”

Really? How exactly are Greenwald and his editors making these decisions about what threatens and doesn’t threaten national security? The Washington Post, New York Times and other news outlets that have published security secrets have explained in the past that they typically go to White House or security officials in advance, and listen to — and sometimes act on — concerns that some of what they plan to publish will pose a threat that far outweighs their news value. It’s an awkward conversation because the officials start with the premise that all of the material falls into that category, but it often results in material being withheld or delayed.

But the Guardian and Greenwald in particular have assumed a far more adversarial stance than those in the more mainstream media, whom Greenwald routinely dismisses as lackeys of the national security state.

So how is the Guardian’s redaction process handled? Do Greenwald and his editors just sit there and decide for themselves that something in the Snowden material is too dangerous to be revealed, even by their standards? (That’s got to be a pretty high bar.) Is Snowden helping them decide what needs to be withheld? Or have they, too, established a back channel to their NSA and other security apparatus adversaries? If so, I’d love to know what those conversations are like.

In its report on the new Guardian material, the Times simply said, “some of the pages were redacted by The Guardian.” There’s a better story here than that.

2. How not to be a valuable business publication:

This really comes under the heading of “stories I hate to see.”

Read these opening paragraphs from a lead story from Ad Age, the venerable ad industry trade publication:

When Vogue Editor Anna Wintour shows up this December in “The Fashion Fund,” she won’t appear on a high-profile network such as Bravo or A&E, but on the lesser-known art channel Ovation TV — a station that Time Warner Cable dropped earlier this year.

In “The Fashion Fund,” Ms. Wintour is one of several fashion bigwigs who select the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The competition, now in its 10th year, pits 10 emerging designers against one another as they vie for a $300,000 grant. An earlier iteration of “The Fashion Fund,” which offers a behind the scenes look at the competition, ran on and in 2012.

When the six-episode show moves to traditional TV, it will be on a network that appears in roughly 50 million homes nationwide, about half as many that receive Bravo and A&E. But the Conde Nast title selected Ovation in part because the network would celebrate fashion as an art form.

But Conde Nast Entertainment said Ovation is “the perfect home for the series.”

Conde Nast Entertainment, Vogue and the CFDA, which stands for Council of Fashion Designers of America, worked with Break Thru Films to produce the series of six hour-long episodes.

Vogue certainly had its share of suitors for the show. Five other well-known TV networks were interested in “The Fashion Fund,” a person close to the company said. But the Conde Nast title selected Ovation — which had approached the magazine about the partnership — because it felt the network would celebrate fashion as an art form.

Conde Nast Entertainment declined to name the other networks.

Okay, what’s wrong here? Well, what if I re-wrote the story and opened with this paragraph instead:

“In a blow to Conde Nast’s much-publicized effort to turn its iconic magazines into TV brands, Anna Wintour and Vogue have failed to land their ‘Fashion Fund’ reality television show on any of the established cable channels that would give it a large audience and prestigious launch pad. Instead, they have had to settle for a launch on Ovation, a struggling cable channel that got bounced off the dial in New York, the media capital of the world, because Time Warner Cable refused to continue to tolerate its low ratings.”

Is my version right and the other one wrong? Or vice versa? Who knows?

And that’s the point. The reporting in the article is so thin that it is impossible to know.

Every quote and account in the story is from someone with an interest in spinning, or just plain not telling the truth, about the Conde Nast launch. But these sources can’t be held accountable for what they are saying because they are anonymous.

The two reporters — yes, the story has two bylines — apparently didn’t even try to question the spin by going to the more prestigious channels, such as Bravo or A&E, and asking someone there, on the record or even for background, whether that station had been asked to bid on the show.

The giveaway to me that this story is pure spin is that “a person close to the company” (I guess the reporter means Conde Nast) said that “five other well-known TV networks” wanted the show, but then declined to name any of the five. Well, if you’re going to insist on anonymity so that you can’t be held accountable for what you say, why wouldn’t you then name at least one or two of those disappointed networks? After all, the networks won’t be angry at you because you’re not being named.

The only answer can be that you’re afraid the reporters might actually call them to check — which, of course, is something the reporting team from Ad Age should have done anyway by calling any and all possible suitors. It’s not a long list, and reporting is supposed to be just that, not stenography.

Here’s a suggestion for whenever you read a business story that depicts a clear winner and loser. If the alleged winner has put out a press release that seems a bit suspicious (as in, “Of course we chose Ovation over Bravo”), that’s strike one. If the release is followed by only anonymous spin, that’s strike two. And if the loser or losers (in this case all those supposedly disappointed suitors at the other networks) have not even been asked to give their accounts of what happened, that’s strike three.

PHOTO: Editor of U.S. Vogue Anna Wintour attends the Prada Autumn/Winter 2011 women collection show at Milan’s Fashion Week February 24, 2011. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini 



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Steven, I love your work, but you must have missed an interview or two on the Snowden case. Both the editors of the Guardian and Greenwald himself in the interviews I’ve seen have said that some, not all the documents have been vetted by the NSA. And yes, most times the NSA says that all should be redacted, but thankfully that hasn’t happened.

And I agree with Greenwald, that the mainstream media are lackeys for the national security state and shills for corporate America.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Good comment on The Guardián . They seem to believe that they can decide what could , or could not , be published . A decision which could affect the lives and security of thousands . Arrogant left wingers !

Posted by Burn1938 | Report as abusive

Edward Snowden, Greenwald, the Guardian, and Wilileaks are all Al-Qaeda sympathizers. They are aiding an abetting terrorist. They are now an “Enemy of the State” Where in hell are our DRONES???

Posted by RobieDH | Report as abusive

Given the extent of intelligence sharing between the U.S. and U.K., and the fact that U.K. intelligence gathering apparently is discussed in some of these documents, one has to wonder if some of these U.S.-designated top secret documents are that same as documents with an equivalent designation of secrecy in the U.K. and, if that is the case, whether the Official Secrets Act is implicated.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

So how can people like Andvan, above, buy the Greenwald line that mainstream media is nothing more than dull tools of the NSA for checking with the NSA on national security; but that he and The Guardian are serving the cause of liberty by checking with the NSA. Though I had immense respect for The Guardian’s unveiling of the Murdoch vise grip on UK’s Blair, Brown and Cameron governments by Nick Davies, I am appalled at their unilateral decision to destroy multiple billions in US intelligence assets based on the fact that they know best for us, not our elected leaders; much less their reporter’s major undeclared conflict of interest against the US government for its prior pursuit of Greenwald for unpaid taxes on his illegal pornography distribution ring. But then who better to drive circulation increases than a libertarian white male who victimize females for cold cash while freeing the white males to stage Twitter rants against females who dare voice opinions on anything. The Guardian is a relative newcomer to US, foreign owned, and evidently believes their libertarian, anti-government boy reporter’s opinion is much more important than US voters who elected their government. Letting college drop out pornographers and tax evaders decide national security issues leaked by a high school drop out who was demoted and then defected to China, then Russia; is not responsible journalism in anyway shape or form, especially when boy Glen’s past history was undeclared until he was outed by other journalist, and then howled it was nothing more than retaliation. I realize The Guardian is just trying to pick up their tanking circulation and know that the former page 6 and NOW readers will go somewhere for their libertarian fix; but the US government should not respond to the new boy rag, as it has proven to be unhinged from reality and gulping its own kool-aid.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

This is an interesting dialog while most of us bounce between extremes of revelations like that of Snowden as either a leaker (bad) or whistleblower (good?), truth or deception, treason or hero, or complicity of the media in national security agendas while purporting to be the independent Fourth Estate with high journalistic integrity, not controversy-seeking commercial enterprises.

What is clear to the majority of us in the middle just trying to discern the truth with all these obfuscating statements from NSA reps, the media, Members of Congress and the President of the United States is that there is substantial, deliberate misinformation and some outright lying. This is the common definition of lying with intent to deceive, not the prevaricators who struggle to hide reality by quibbling over the definintion of what “is” is. And, people wonder why most people don’t trust the government to do the right thing.

Ben Franklin stated that those who choose security over freedom lose both. It’s quite apparent that we made that choice years ago when we overrode FISA with court review with the euphemistically labeled “Patriot Act” that would more correctly named, “Restriction of Freedoms Act” or “Constitutional Override Act”.

Surveillance of phone calls, not meta (billing) data, by the federal government has been well documented for over half a century back when it was the CIA tapping trunk lines. (Read Tully’s 1960s book on the CIA.) It has also been known and frequently publicized that federal agencies have direct access to all of the telecom switching centers for decades. What are they doing with this access? We also know that the FBI and NSA have pushed for years to provide access to TV and InterNet channels, circumventing encryption. Who is stupid enough to believe that they’re not regularly listening to phone conversations and reading e-mail? Who is stupid enough to believe that technology has not been around for decades?

If the NSA is not doing such surveillance, then why are they asking for tens of billions of dollars to expand their digital storage facilities? This is no secret since it been reported on several media outlets.

Just to make it clear, I personally believe that much of this surveillance is to the benefit of the United States. But, do we have to keep putting up with the disingenous, tongue-in-cheek prevarication from government offices at every level? Any idiot can figure out that if Google and dozens of other InterNet providers are regularly providing full access to tens of thousands of InterNet streams of individuals each year, but the rubber-stamp FISA court has only reviewed about 1700 during the past year – denying none – then most are not even rubber-stamped!

Being treated like idiots is what is insulting.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive