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Whistleblower or Traitor: Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg and the Power of Media Celebrity

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Abstract

During the spring and summer of 2013, an American citizen drew international attention after deliberately leaking to journalists classified documents pertaining to the operations of the National Security Agency. Edward Snowden soon became a polarizing figure; privacy advocates hailed him a hero and government officials labeled him a criminal. Snowden fled the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he stayed for a couple weeks before flying to Russia. After a one-month ordeal in which he remained in legal limbo, Snowden was granted temporary asylum by the Russian government. Snowden‟s case – correctly or not – drew comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg, another American citizen who more than 40 years ago handed over to journalists classified documents pertaining to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. The “Pentagon Papers” case led to Ellsberg being called a hero by those people and groups that saw U.S. military policies as failed and a traitor by those people and groups that believed undermining the military effort was akin to treason. Charged with multiple crimes, Ellsberg walked out of court a free man after all charges against him were dismissed by a judge. Today, Ellsberg remains in the U.S. (something Snowden refused to do), and he is still speaking out on government efforts to hide information from the American people. This paper suggests that Ellsberg was viewed more as an “American” figure while Snowden was seen as an “international” figure. And the changing media environment – brought on by economic and technological forces – over the past couple decades explains why. This paper argues that the transformation of media agencies that must focus more on audience expectations, global commercial pressures and personality-driven information ensured news agencies paid more attention to Snowden the person rather than his actions. In short, media capitalized on him as a person so as to ensure the largest possible audiences for their stories.

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