Former Professional Journalist Suggests NYT Shouldn’t Pay Its Journalists

I’m working on a more substantive response to this Ben Wittes post claiming that the NYT’s latest Snowden story doesn’t mean the NSA spies on lawyers.

But I wanted to note how it begins.

Unless the public is really tiring of matters Snowden, the New York Times’s latest is going to stir up the hornet’s nest. “Spying by N.S.A. Ally Entangled U.S. Law Firm,” blares the headline of the story by reporter James Risen and freelancer Laura Poitras—from whom the Times (which insists it never pays for information) sometimes procures Snowden-leaked documents and to whom it gives a byline when it does so. [my emphasis]

The apparent subtext here is that the NYT is paying Laura Poitras not to do journalism on a story she has covered in depth for the last 8 months, but instead for access to documents in her possession (or to use Mike Rogers’ formulation, Poitras is fencing stolen property).

The comment is odd not just because Wittes has not (as far as I know) complained that the NYT also got (or may have in this case — I frankly don’t claim to know these arrangements) Snowden documents directly from the Guardian in a necessary attempt to bypass the UK’s crackdown on press freedom.

Odder still, according to Wittes’ Brookings bio, he worked as a professional journalist for at least a decade, both as a WaPo staffer and as an independent contributor.

Between 1997 and 2006, he served as an editorial writer for The Washington Post specializing in legal affairs. Before joining the editorial page staff of The Washington Post, Wittes covered the Justice Department and federal regulatory agencies as a reporter and news editor at Legal Times. His writing has also appeared in a wide range of journals and magazines including The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Wilson Quarterly, The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, and First Things.

Therefore I assume he is familiar with the tradition in journalism that when someone reports — even (especially) for a major newspaper as a freelancer — one gets paid.

Except he seems to want to make an exception just in this one case so as to insinuate certain things about Poitras’ reporting.

I do hope all of Wittes’ reporter friends remind him that their profession is still … a profession, and that equating professional journalism with crime sort of puts a damper on the whole freedom of the press thing, not to mention their claim that they should be compensated for their labor.

Disclosure: Obviously, with my affiliation with First Look Media, I do have a tie with Poitras (though not with this story). As an EW post, however, this post has no tie to First Look, and I have talked to neither Poitras nor anyone else at First Look before writing it.

Update: Wittes explains himself at length here (though the *@^$&*# hackers have brought Lawfare down again). It seems Wittes is nostalgic for the time when newspapers and the government had such a cozy relationship the NYT could lie us into catastrophic war in the service of the government.

I confess that I’m troubled by the power dynamics at work—for reasons that I’m sure will not endear me to my Twitter critics: I believe in institutional media. I believe in editors. And while I also deeply believe in the proliferation of voices that new media has enabled, I don’t like it that Greenwald, Gellman, and Poitras have such enormous leverage against big media organizations which I expect to make responsible publishing decisions. Put simply, I am uncomfortable with the unaccountable power that this arrangement gives people like Poitras over organizations like the New York Times.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. ishmael says:

    Hard to make sense of Wittes’ position against paying freelancers. Maybe he would prefer Poitras to be an unpaid intern?

  2. Frank33 says:

    Who else pays journalists? Actually who pays pretend journalists? That would be the CIA, who paid newspaper shills for years. The CIA “Mockingbirds” were paid by the CIA to lie about CIA wars and assassinations, and COINTELPRO against the American people.

    Who pays pretend journalist Ben Wittes? The NSA pays Wittes to slander any critics of the Secret Government and Universal COINTELPRO Dragnet. Same old story. Spies Lie, using taxpayer money. If Wittes needs more money he could always work for Monsanto to sell us Monsanto’s poisons.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    Don’t worry, Mr. Wittes undoubtedly will reply to any suggestion of criticism here by noting, first, that he’s not a journalist. Just as he did when his commentary in Lawfare was criticized as being legally incorrect, so he felt justified in sanctimoniously chiding his critics because he’s not actually a lawyer. He can’t, after all, be held to a standard of actually providing informed commentary because, after all, he doesn’t actually claim to know what he’s writing about.

  4. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    Should we be surprised by Mr. Wittes comments? After all, he has a spotless pedigree as a paid spokesman for the neocons. When you write commentary for The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, and the Brookings Institute, should we expect anything more than that? Frank33 made reference to the past practice of the CIA for using journalistic “assets” to advance their narratives in the press. Hopefully, First Look Media or Seymour Hersh will try to determine if this practice continues. It certainly looks like it does.

  5. orionATL says:

    wittes is becoming more willfully witless by the argument.

    before he gets to argue “stolen” property, wittes fitst has to get past the fact that he is defending the most extravagant theiving organization and the most enormous theft in modern history, the nsa’s lawless theft of personal communications from millions upon millions of people.

    that he ignores this basic fact places his anti-whistleblower arguments solidly in the realm of right-wing, authoritarian propaganda.

    the nsa’s theft of personal communications is analogous to the national socialist party’s theft of art objects from german, polish, french jews in the 1930’s and ’40’s – state-sanctioned theft in violation of ordinary law and common decency justified, as with the nsa’s theft, with statist, nationalistic sophistry.

  6. Snoopdido says:

    I hereby make the motion that henceforth all spellcheckers change the word “witless” to “witteless”.

    Will anyone second my motion?

  7. C says:

    To take Wittlesses’ perspective here he has signed on to do one thing and one thing only, defend the NSA against all comers. To that end he is clearly required to claim, with a straight face, that everything that is shown to be true about them is not. He is, in short, in the business of claiming that the meat ration was just raised to half of what it was last week. In that line of work reality and consistency are simply not permitted. Therefore we should no longer be surprised that he is inconsistent, illogical, or that he argues against that which he has always championed. That just goes with the job.

  8. Rosalind says:

    “enormous leverage”, “unaccountable power”. wow. i had kinda forgotten the place of fear so many institutional media-ites operate from.

  9. allan says:

    “Responding to the report, Mayer Brown said in a statement late Sunday night: “There is no indication, either in the media reports or from our internal systems and controls, that the alleged surveillance occurred at the firm.”

    Asked by the Tribune whether the firm was saying that there was no evidence of spying at the firm, or that there was no evidence of spying of the firm, a Mayer Brown spokesman responded: “At the firm.””

    Spoken like a lawyer.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-20140217,0,5558909.story

  10. ess emm says:

    Here’s NSA’s Wittes’s beef:

    Gellman & Poitras are irresponsible! What’s more, they are using their “unaccountable power” to bully the hapless editors at NYT and WaPo into printing stories that are factually and conceptually wrong.

    Jesus. Is this Wittes’s Ode to Bill Keller?

    Another part that pissed me off was when Wittes takes back his fast-talk splaining that he’s not saying freelancing’s wrong, mind you. What he meant to say is it’s just a figleaf for paying for information!

    But paying freelancers—freelancers with strong political views on the issues about which they are writing for the paper—can serve as a convenient fig leaf.

    I guess that figleaf isnt meant to cover Gellman, just folks with political views different from NSA Wittes. I mean, who cares that they have the facts and documents on their side.

  11. C says:

    @Rosalind: You know I just re-read the statement above with your comments and in light of that I have to revise my own (@C) I think that Wittless must be truly scared not of inconsistency but of having his nice, safe, warm, and profitable illusions torn down. Because that and that alone is the only thing that Snowden, Portas, and Greenwald have the “unlimited” power over. I mean it’s not like they have a global spying apparatus at their command.

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