By EVAN GAHR
Washington Post scribe Barton Gellman, a conduit for the
classified material that Edward Snowden pilfered from the National Security
Agency, abruptly declined an award he had agreed to receive from the American
Civil Liberties Union after this reporter inquired about the obvious
impropriety of being honored by an organization he covers.
Of course, only a journalist who fancies himself a political
player and not an independent observer would have ever agreed to accept an
award from an advocacy organization in the first place.
Gellman was to receive the award, along with Glenn Greenwald and
film maker Laura Poitras, at the April 23 “Bill of Rights” fundraising dinner
of the ACLU’s Washington regional office.
Greenwald was slated to accept the award via videotape on behalf
of his two fellow Edward Snowden handlers.
The ACLU, which Gellman often quotes uncritically, is enamored of
Gellman because he used information provided by Snowden to expose for the
Washington Post some of the National Security Agency’s hitherto secret
electronic surveillance programs.
The Washington Post just won a Pulitzer Prize for its stories on
the NSA by Gellman and other reporters.
The ACLU and some conservatives say the programs are illegal and a
fundamental threat to American freedoms.
In an April 4 email blast
to supporters the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital said Gellman along with Glenn
Greenwald and film maker Laura Poitras, co-author of Gellman’s story that divulged
the NSA’s internet data mining program would get
an award named for the late Henry Edgerton, a liberal federal appeals court
one of his best known decisions Edgerton joined a Washington, DC appellate
court ruling that upheld the decision by a district court judge to dismiss the
perjury conviction of China “scholar” Owen Lattimore, a notorious Communist propagandist.
“The program for our
dinner includes videotaped remarks from Rio de Janeiro by courageous journalist
Glenn Greenwald, who will be accepting our Henry W. Edgerton Civil Liberties
Award on behalf of Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras and himself,” the ACLU announced triumphantly.
Former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane said that it would be foolhardy for a journalist to accept an
award from an advocacy group he covers. “If
the award is coming from an organization you are covering it’s a mistake to
accept it. You’re not demonstrating sufficient independence.”
Like a polished diplomat
Brisbane emphasized that he was talking about the issue in general and did not
know the specifics of the Gellman matter. Was his reticence due to the fact
that Brisbane had worked at the Washington Post with Gellman?
Left-leaning NYU journalism
professor Jay Rosen also closed ranks behind Gellman. Rosen, who worked briefly
as a journalist in 1978 but has spent
the ensuing decades explaining to reporters how they can be as morally upright
as him, declined comment.
Before abruptly hanging up,
however, Rosen explained that he would
not talk to me because I write for conservative publications.
Three cheers for guilt by
But Dick Wald, who was in charge of broadcast standards for ABC News, told this reporter that he saw nothing wrong with journalists getting awards from advocacy organizations. "All organizations are advocacy organizations," he said.
Asked if that included the Pulitzer Prize Committee he said emphatically, "Yes."
As for Gellman, when contacted for this article he steadfastly denied
any sort of ethical problem.
Curiously, just hours after the ACLU had announced it was giving
him an award Gellman insisted he was not really getting an award from the ACLU.
“I don't go around accepting or rejecting awards,” Gellman
contended. “I'm not in the business of denouncing people.”
Gellman claimed that “nothing says I'm accepting the award.”
Reminded that the ACLU email, which Gellman said he had read,
declared that Greenwald would accept the award for him and Poitras the
investigative journalist insisted that was a “mistake.”
Pressed further Gellman ended the phone call.
“I think we’re done,” he said. “Goodbye.”
Gellman then emailed a few minutes later to say he just told the
ACLU to correct its supposed error about Greenwald accepting the award for him.
The Washington Post veteran, who wrote an entire book complaining
that Dick Cheney is overly secretive, refused to answer follow-up questions.
But Art Spitzer, legal
director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, told this reporter that
Gellman knew full well he was getting the award. Gellman “initially
agreed to be one of the recipients of our award, and we included his name on
the invitations” to its shindig at the National Press Club,” Spitzer
The day after Gellman bagged on them the ACLU sheepishly announced
that although they “wanted to give the Henry W. Edgerton Civil
Liberties Award to courageous journalist Bart Gellman, he stated that he wants
to maintain his professional distance from organizations he covers. He
respectfully declines to accept the award.”
Spitzer said for this article that Gellman
“had second thoughts about accepting an award from an organization that's an
advocate on many of the issues he covers. We respect his decision.”
Should these “second thoughts” have been first thoughts?
Asked about the matter Washington Post
executive editor Marty Baron tried to pretend that Gellman never agreed to
receive the award.
Baron said that “Bart didn’t seek the award and is not accepting it.”
Uh, actually, “Bart” was prepared to accept it until I raised the
Saying Gellman “didn’t seek the award” is a distinction without a
Baron sounded like someone caught with his hand in the cookie jar
who sheepishly says, “I didn’t seek these cookies and am not taking them.”
Baron did not respond to a follow-up email asking if he thought
the determination of the ACLU to give Gellman an award showed his coverage was wildly
skewed in their favor.
Evan Gahr, a
former press critic for the late New York Post editorial page editor Eric
Breindel, has also written about the media for the Wall Street Journal,
National Review, the Weekly Standard and the American Spectator. Twitter:@EvanGahr
Update: ACLU emails response to story.