On Monday, The Washington Post and Guardian U.S. won Pulitzer Prizes in the Public Service category for their coverage of the National Security Agency that relied on Edward Snowden’s disclosures. It was impossible for some not to read this as commentary on the substance of those disclosures. Politico’s Dylan Byers called it “a move certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.” Byers reported that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had done this, saying, “The public service in this award is significant because Snowden performed a public service.” The pro-transparency Government Accountability Project called the Pulitzers “undeniable validation.” And here is the so-good-we’d-need-to-invent-it Huffington Post headline: “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor.” Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King denounced the Board: “Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace,” he said.
That these organizations would win Pulitzers for this work was unsurprising. Although Glenn Greenwald (at the Guardian) and Laura Poitras (at both) sometimes shaded into advocacy, and although Snowden himself is a questionable figure, this was the scoop of the decade and was obviously going to be recognized as such. And it is similarly unsurprising that it would be turned into a political football, since, after all, everything else Snowden touches seems to undergo this metamorphosis.
Rather, what was shocking was that John Yoo, the infamous Bush-era Justice Department lawyer and author of the infamous “Torture Memos,” said something sensible on what has been deemed a national security matter. This is rather remarkable, given that Yoo also once said the CIA could torture people. How did this happen? The squared circle, in this case, is that Yoo didn’t actually say anything about a national security matter. What 18 people sitting in a room in Morningside Heights decided has absolutely nothing to do with national security. It’s a journalism prize—and not even the one for Commentary.
The Pulitzers did not take a position on Snowden, the NSA, or even on the more blatantly activist motivations of some of the journalists it honored (Greenwald and Poitras are openly opposed to the practices they reported on). Instead, the Board hailed the Post for “its 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 Guardian, similarly, won for its “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.” The dynamic that the Board perceives is clear: The press uncovers the news, and then the public does with it what it will. Were the phrase not too loaded, we might say that the Pulitzers’ philosophy is: They report, you decide.
John Yoo, of all people, gets this. He certainly has his motives—among them his belief that Snowden should be jailed “for as long as possible” (maybe Yoo can write a memo that unconstitutionally extends Snowden's potential jail-term). But his analogy for the Pulitzer win was apt: He told Byers, “I don’t think we need automatically read the prize as a vindication for Snowden’s crimes. Awarding a prize to a newspaper that covered a hurricane does not somehow vindicate the hurricane.” No matter what one thinks of Snowden’s behavior, he produced incredibly newsworthy scoops, and the journalists who reported them deserve acclaim.
This even appears to be how Snowden feels. He said in a statement Monday, “Today's decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.” That’s pretty careful for a guy who has not always made the most careful decisions. The merits of Snowden’s actions as well as the NSA’s will be litigated in places other than the Pulitzer Board’s meeting room. But they will be litigated only because of the journalism the Board honored Monday.