Edward Snowden addresses the SXSW media conference.
Next month, the trustees who oversee America's most distinguished journalistic award could face their toughest decision in at least four decades.
The issue before the Pulitzer Prize Board: Does it honor reporting by The Washington Post
and The Guardian
based on stolen government documents that are arguably detrimental to the national security of the United States, and which were provided by a man who many see as a traitor? Or, does it pass over what is widely viewed as the single most significant story of the year - if not the decade - for the sake of playing it safe?
The politically charged debate surrounding the National Security Agency's widespread domestic surveillance program, and the man who revealed it, Edward Snowden, is certain to prompt intense discussion for the 19-member Board as it gathers to decide this year's winners, according to past Board members, veteran journalists and media watchdogs. The debate echoes the historic decision in 1972, when the Board honored The New York Times
for its reporting on Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers, they said.
"This is an institutional question for them," said Robert Kaiser, the veteran Washington Post
journalist and a previous Pulitzer Prize finalist. "This is a very good argument to have, and there are members of that Board who are going to raise these questions and want to talk about them."
The risks are manifold, and there is no easy answer: Honoring the NSA reporting - particularly in the coveted category of Public Service - 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 that Snowden's revelations, and the decision by journalists to publish them, were the exact opposite of a public service. President Barack Obama has said that Snowden's leaks "could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come." Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called him "a traitor." Snowden, who is living in Russia, is facing three felony charges in a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department.
Yet to pass on the NSA story would be to 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. Last December, in a move that Snowden later described as vindication, a federal district judge ruled that the NSA surveillance Snowden exposed most likely violates the Constitution. Another judge later found the surveillance lawful.
"The stories that came out of this completely changed the agenda on the discussion on privacy and the NSA," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker
. "There's an enormous public good in that, and it's yet to be proven at all that somehow did great damage to national security."