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Z on TV
Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
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Snowden interview best work by NBC, Brian Williams in a long time

Edward SnowdenNBCNational Security AgencyThe Wire (tv program)John KerryBarack ObamaCentral Intelligence Agency

NBC News and anchorman Brian Williams have not done journalistic work the quality of Wednesday night's exclusive interview with Edward Snowden in a long, long time.

Since NBC News had the interview for a week, according to Williams, it could have done more reporting on some of Snowden's statements. For example, he said he was not merely a systems analyst or the "hacker" as President Obama dismissively characterized him, but rather an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency trained as a traditional spy.

He said he worked overseas under fake names in cover occupations for both agencies. If true, that's a major contradiction of the government description of him, and I wish NBC News had at least explained whether or not it had tried to confirm those claims and where those efforts now stood.

But overall, the questions Williams asked in the interview conducted in a Russian hotel room were probing, contextualized and consistently elicited revealing answers from Snowden.

Williams gave Snowden the chance to articulate both the philosophy behind his acts and the personal cost of them. He let Snowden expound on large abstract concepts like civil disobedience, but he also got him to talk about the nitty-gritty of his life in Russia.

One of the more interesting answers that Snowden gave about his day to day existence was that while he desperately misses America, the Internet has made it possible for people to live in an alien physical space while mentally inhabiting a familiar cyberspace.

The example he gave to make the point as to how his computer allows him to still live within a realm of American culture is that he is now watching David Simon's Baltimore-based "The Wire."

"Right now, I'm watching a show, 'The Wire,' about surveillance," he said, chuckling at the idea of him watching a series about surveillance. "I'm really enjoying it -- [though] the second season's not that good."

In one case, NBC News did try to report on something Snowden said in the interview, his claim that he had tried to go through traditional whistleblower channels before taking classified data and fleeing the country. And it was hugely important that Williams told viewers NBC was able to report that "multiple sources" confirmed Snowden's account of expressing his concerns in writing at least once to supervisors that NSA was overstepping its legal authority in gathering vast amounts of personal data from American citizens in the form of phone and computer records.

That bit of reporting came just as I was reaching a point of great frustration in not knowing what was true and what wasn't in terms of some of the more surprising things Snowden was saying.

NBC News still has a mountain of reporting to do on this story. But I do know this after watching the interview: Snowden is a smart guy who has carefully thought through his philosophical and moral position on stealing the documents.

He makes President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the some of the intelligence officials who have categorically thrown around terms like "traitor" in describing him seem far less thoughtful. In fact, statements like the one from Kerry saying Snowden should "man up and come back to the United States" seem nothing but macho bluster and meant to deceive.

Getting the interview is a major scoop for Williams and NBC News, an anchorman and a news operation that seemed to have totally lost any sense of a journalistic compass in recent years with shows like the defunct "Rock Center" and the softest nightly newscast in the history of American network television.

This one interview falls far short of redeeming what's happened to NBC News the last few years, both in ratings and loss of standards. But it's perhaps a step in the right direction under new senior management.

While I was disappointed in the lack of reporting by NBC, I was impressed with how fairly Snowden was treated in both the interview and the editing for an hour of prime time Wednesday.

The man who showed us how NSA and other government intelligence operations are using our communications devices to reach into the most private corners of our lives was allowed to show the range of his mind and the passion of his convictions to millions Wednesday night. And I can't help but think a lot of Americans went to bed not so sure any more about their president and secretary of state categorically calling him a traitor.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Edward SnowdenNBCNational Security AgencyThe Wire (tv program)John KerryBarack ObamaCentral Intelligence Agency
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