Following the news that the Justice Department had snooped on the Associated Press and Fox News, pundits screamed about the inevitable “chilling effect” on investigative journalism. New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson spoke for many journos when she told “Face the Nation” last weekend: “The reporters who work for the Times in Washington have told me that many of their sources are petrified to even return calls at this point. … It has … a real practical effect that is important.”
Three days after she made those remarks, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald published a massive story about a federal phone-records collection operation from Verizon. The story was based on a top-secret court order leaked to the Guardian.
Four days after Abramson’s remarks, The Post published a massive story on federal data mining from Internet companies. Its source? “[A] top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.”
Based on these two stories, have we all — Erik Wemple Blog included — overhyped the so-called chilling effect of federal crackdowns on leakers and media organizations?
Heck no, says Barton Gellman, one of the reporters of The Post story. “Chill doesn’t mean a below-zero freeze,” says Gellman. “It raises the threshold for someone to whistle-blow.” The source for his story, says Gellman, expects to be “unmasked involuntarily” and will likely pay a “big price” for leaking. Where the chilling effect really bore down on the project, says Gellman, was in providing context for the news. “People who would have given me help around the edges without crossing the line were terrified to be associated with it,” he says. “The other thing is I had to take precautions unlike any I have ever taken in my career in terms of trying to communicate securely. It gets to point where it almost becomes absurd: You can’t be a reporter and be off the grid.”
Greenwald has a similar take on the situation. Here are his thoughts, sent via e-mail:
Whoever is responsible for these disclosures had to have an enormous amount of courage and an endless willing to self-sacrifice in order to bring these abuses to light. As a democracy, we shouldn’t have to wait for such extraordinary human acts to have transparency, and the fact that we were lucky enough to have it here certainly doesn’t mean that the climate of fear from whistleblower persecutions isn’t real.
It’s very real.