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Big News Forges Its Own Path
If an abuse of power akin to Watergate happened today, it might not take the might and muscle of The Washington Post to get the story. The Mitt Romney “47 percent” video , arguably a turning point in the last presidential campaign, came out on the Web site of Mother Jones, a relatively small liberal magazine.
In the 2008 campaign, the comment that got Barack Obama in hot water, about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns or religion,” was first reported on The Huffington Post by Mayhill Fowler, an unpaid blogger. And of course once big news breaks, everyone is forced to follow along.
The jailbreak on information reached a pinnacle less than two weeks ago, when Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, broke the news of systematic surveillance by the National Security Agency, after he was chosen by Edward Snowden as a conduit for a big leak. Having a large presence in Washington and a brand name does not ensure news supremacy: Mr. Greenwald is a former lawyer turned journalistic advocate of civil liberties — an American writing for a newspaper based in Britain while living in Brazil. Because a source picked him to break the biggest story of the year, the rest of us did as well. And the video that accompanied it, as in the instance of Mrs. Bachmann, Ms. Palin and Mr. Weiner, allowed Mr. Snowden to make his own case before he was defined by media and government.
“There has been an institutional bias that traditional outlets cling to — that anyone who doesn’t do the things that they do in the way that they do them isn’t doing real journalism,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone interview. “Since nobody can say that the stories that we did are not serious journalism that has had a very big impact, the last week will forever put an end to that myth.”
In this instance, the historical strengths of big news organizations like the one I work for — objectivity, deep sources in the government and a history of careful reporting — were seen by Mr. Snowden as weaknesses. He went to Mr. Greenwald because they share values, because Mr. Greenwald is a loud and committed opponent of the national security apparatus and because he is not worried what the government thinks of his reporting. Of course, Mr. Greenwald had the international reach of The Guardian behind his story, and Mr. Snowden also shared information with The Washington Post , although it was clear that Mr. Greenwald’s past coverage on the issue was as important as where he worked.
The way to break a big story used to be simple. Get the biggest outlet you can to take an interest in what you have to say, deliver the goods and then cross your fingers in hopes that they play it large.
That’s now over. Whether it’s dodgy video that purports to show a public official smoking crack or a huge advance in the public understanding of how our government watches us, news no longer needs the permission of traditional gatekeepers to break through. Scoops can now come from all corners of the media map and find an audience just by virtue of what they reveal.