Stories about Secrets

Whether it’s a local investigative reporting story or an international scandal, whistleblowing has always had the ability to consume my attention. For as long as I can remember I was always questioning things – seeing how a story might be told from a different perspective. There was a war going on and I didn’t understand war. I didn’t understand terrorism. I thought there were so many mysteries in the world and I was always looking for more.

Finally, in high school I began to learn how I could channel this curiosity into journalism. I became fascinated with investigative journalism, specifically the leakers. They understood that we deserve better than an illusion of justice. Whether it’s muckraker Nellie Bly going undercover to expose mental institutional abuse or Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers – causing controversy for the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.Edward Snowden Wired Magazine Cover on News Stand.These are stories that threaten administrations simply because they reveal “secrets.”

These important stories are somehow the ones we’re not supposed to talk about. Both on a personal and a political level, secrets are kept. Why does this censorship exist? What are we ignoring?

Thinking about the term “whistleblower” is really contradictory in itself. A whistleblower is simply someone who exposes illegal conduct or dishonesty. But this term has such a stigma attached to it. It’s the “nobody likes a snitch” ideal. Daniel Ellsberg is a really historic whistleblower, releasing the controversial Pentagon Papers which informed the public that the government was systematically lying to them about the Vietnam War. Ellsberg continues to support modern whistleblowers who are receiving even worse scrutiny, Edward Snowden who was granted asylum in Russia and Chelsea Manning who is serving 35 years in prison. They make themselves vulnerable at the price of their own livelihoods.

The heavy consequences of whistleblowing, whether it is Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, fall upon the whistleblowers themselves and not on the injustices that they are revealing. We have seen this repeatedly throughout history. These truths evoke a controversy, and somehow our national security always outweighs justice. We’re taught since childhood that telling the truth is of utmost importance, and yet, whistleblowers get condemned for it. They are framed as threats to our nation and to our national security, and punished for it. The First Amendment disappears and they become criminals. For instance, the former Director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, goes as far as to compare Snowden to a terrorist. Using fear is a really effective tactic, but I think it’s incredibly misleading.

I am frustrated seeing heroes called traitors, and traitors called heroes. Something is seriously wrong if we’re sending truth-tellers to jail, if we’re threatening their safety, and if we’re condemning their actions. Which is worse – the fear of the truth or the fear of the cover-up? What audience are we going to be faithful to, the government, or the people? Why are we on different sides

Edward Snowden explains it well:

“You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal.”

We cannot, as a society, let these crimes remain secret. Our children should not be raised with media outlets portraying Edward Snowden as a “nerd” and focusing on his girlfriend or debating over Chelsea Manning’s rights to a “she” pronoun. These are petty distractions to keep us from seeing the bigger picture: that there are things we aren’t allowed to know and we are supposed to simply accept, no questions asked. That is not a democracy. These stories carry implications for all of our lives, whether it be the corruption of our government or the privacy of your iPhone. As we lose awareness of these vulnerabilities, we are losing our human rights. We are losing our humanity as our identities become hoarded digitized documents, and our privacy is being compromised by corporate deals.

For me, it’s not about what is the next classified document that is leaked or video that is uncovered, but it’s about how we react to it. We cannot let brave voices be punished for sharing information they felt compelled to share – to put their own lives at risk for the betterment of all of us. We must use everything in our power to overcome the silence.

(photo credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr)