The NSA, Germany, and journalism

SDZ front page

spiegel front page

Look at the home pages of two major German news sites today, August 20. The Süddeutsche Zeitung talks about the government forcing the Guardian to destroy computers holding leaked NSA data in “a scene out of a spy novel.” Spiegel Online talks about the UK as “the land of black helicopters.”

Now compare them with leading American and British news sites, pictured below. The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Telegraph, The Times of London — nada, each essentially silent on their web front pages regarding this amazing Guardian tale of the destroyed computers or the prior detention of David Miranda, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s husband, at Heathrow airport under a terrorism statute.

Therein lie two tales, one about Germany and privacy, one about journalism and news judgment; they are linked and mysterious.

First, Germany. In my book Public Parts, I used Germany as a case study in the fight over privacy (and publicness) and technology. Germans, I said, care deeply about privacy not just because of their recent political history — the Stasi and the Nazis — but also because culturally, they are lead quite private lives, rarely even talking about their voting preferences with friends and relatives (I know; I married into a German family).

In the NSA story, we are seeing both traits but, of course, we are mostly seeing the political side in open anger about American and British government attacks on their privacy. Germans held protests in almost 40 cities — dwarfing the turnout in a few American cities (I attended the one in New York and was saddened by the sparseness of it). German media — led strongly by Der Spiegel — are holding politicians’ feet to the fire over any allegations of cooperation with American and British spies. They have already made the NSA a big issue in the upcoming national election. It is a major story there.

But that’s not so much so in the two countries where the story originates, the US and UK (present company of the Guardian excepted, of course). Why not? I’d start by arguing that the German editors are displaying appropriate news judgment. This story affects every user of the internet; it affects the internet and technology industries (that link is to another German publication, Zeit Online, saying — in German — that the NSA scandal is bad for business); if affects international relations; it affects the fate of journalism.

So I don’t understand why editors at the august publications pictured below are not giving the story the prominence the Germans are. Of course, the Washington Post was in on the story early (but it also editorialized that Edward Snowden should stop leaking) and The New York Times has reported on the story with varying degrees of oomph. But the Telegraph and the Times and other British publications have not given it much coverage or prominence and I’d say the same of the BBC and American TV news networks.

Why? Is it jealousy of the Guardian: not-scooped-here syndrome? Is it the too-close relationship of the institutions of media and government (witness NBC’s David Gregory saying he’d almost arrest the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald or CNN’s and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin practically flacking for the US Justice Department). Is it bad news judgment?

Or are the Germans and I wrong, and as a journalist I am expecting too much attention to be paid to this story because it is about in news? (Full disclosure: I consult and write for the Guardian.) You could argue that. But I’d argue back.

When I presented Public Parts at the re:publica conference in Berlin — before I wrote it — I spoke about the German paradox regarding privacy (they can be militantly private about Google Street View or Facebook but when it comes to the sauna, they are more public than an American would ever dare to be). A member of the audience asked me in turn about the American paradox. What’s that? I asked. Well, he said, you Americans are suspicious of government though you’ve had a far better government over the years than we Europeans have and we trust government more than you do. Right, and Europeans — Germans especially — are suspicious of companies even though theirs are highly regulated.

But the NSA story isn’t moving according to that script. The Germans are exhibiting deep distrust of government — theirs and our’s — but our media and our citizens, apparently, not so much. If no media in the world cared a bit about the NSA story, then perhaps you could chalk it up to the Guardian being too proud of its scoop. But German media by their enthusiasm dismantle that theory.

I am left without a good explanation why this story is getting less attention in the English-speaking world, only with a hope that our media will soon wake up.

LATER: Spiegel Online just posted a translation of its black helicopters commentary, arguing that Britons are just too comfortable with surveillance, too cozy with government and its spies.

The United Kingdom is not an authoritarian surveillance state like China. But it is a country in which surveillance has become part of everyday life. The cold eyes of the security apparatus keep watch over everything that moves — in underground stations and hospitals, at intersections and on buses. The British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) recently estimated that there could be up to 5.9 million surveillance cameras in the country — or one camera for every 11 Britons. Most were not installed by the government, but by companies and private citizens. One wonders who even has the time to look at these images.

While there is the occasional burst of resistance on the island, most just accept surveillance as the price of freedom. And in contrast to Germany, many journalists are wont to defend their government, particularly when it comes to the global interest of the United Kingdom and its so-called national security. Dan Hodges, a blogger with ties to the Labour Party, echoed the sentiments of many in the Westminster political world following the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been instrumental in exposing the breadth of GCHQ and NSA surveillance activities. Hodges wrote: “What do we honestly expect the UK authorities to do? Give him a sly wink and say ‘off you go son, you have a nice trip’?”

It’s astonishing to see how many Britons blindly and uncritically trust the work of their intelligence service. Some still see the GCHQ as a club of amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II.

So there’s a theory: The Germans are reacting to the NSA saying, “No us, not again.” The Brits may be saying, “We miss Le Carré.” And the Americans? Maybe we think this doesn’t matter to us because the NSA is spying on all those foreigners, or maybe we’re embarrassed, or maybe we don’t know what to do in media until somebody goes on trial.

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Screenshot 2013-08-20 at 3.53.10 PM

  • I think it is a function of several things:

    1) People in the US are comfortable. We have our Xbox’s and Starbucks and until the police come to get them, they just don’t care.

    2) The media has devolved into an institution that cares more about access to power than it does challenging power. It isn’t a right/left thing. Having access to politicians and people with power gives journalists at big institutions power and influence. The last thing they would want to do is change that. They will support any way or any policy if that is the way the status quo winds blow.

    3) Post 9/11, we have developed into a Praetorian state where we worship those in uniform and who work for the state. You are not allowed to question (or even photograph) what those who work for our nominal protection do.

    • klaus

      1) People in Germany are comfortable too, the Standard of living is the same there at the moment.

      3) Of course you are allowed to photograph and video american police, check youtube and find loads of content.

  • This is very interesting. Even german Television ARD had big complaints about the threat on media today. They asked if British authorities are still acting like we expect from a democratic government.

  • Steve Hall

    I’d say our citizens (at least, the ones I encounter on Google+) are plenty worked up about it; the press, not so much.

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  • Detlef Guertler

    My best guess for the different media reactions is competition. For every Anglo-saxon news site the Guardian is a competitor. And a strong one. For German media the Guardian is not seen as a competitor, but as a source. And a good one.

    • trapezium

      This is persuasive. The Guardian has all the information, anything the others report must necessarily be suffixed with “… the Guardian said yesterday”.

      Strategically, would it then make sense for the Guardian to share the info with its competitors?

  • Mike

    Gag-orders? If they “arrest” a journalist’s partner on terror claims, why wouldn’t they do that?

    We, Germans, are very concerned and thankful for the enlightenment we’ve been given. Even our mass media, Spiegel f.e., writes dozens of articles on encryption, anonymization, how to get your data back from Facebook/Google, etc, all dumbed down as good as possible so that even the non-techies understand.

    There’s not even a single reason to trust our own government, if you see what happened in the case of the NSU, Gustl Mollath and a dozen other things as of late. If we don’t trust ours to protect us, why should we trust governments across the oceans? Most people here even hate the EU, not for the people of other countries, but for what it does in terms of legislation, pretty much only standing up for the companies.

    But to be fair, our media isn’t generally that good, usually they happily chime in on the terrorism-stuff and other things to scare people.

  • AlbertoP

    Lack of the NSA coverage in the US can be explained by the simple fact that professors and pundits who fret about Imperial Presidency and government abuse of power go into hibernation when the President is a Democrat.

  • ulrikelanger

    One possible explanation is: The NSA story broke too late for the US presidential election and just in time for the German national election next month. Both Merkel’s incumbent conservative party and the opposing Social Democrats are hoping the NSA story will work in their favor. But so far that strategy is not working for either party. Because the leading German media are trying to keep this story on the front page agenda (the FAZ not so much, by the way), but the German public seems to be just as complacent as the US public. Typical reactions range from “Told you so, we’re all being spied on” to “I’ve got nothing to fear. If it helps catch terrorists, let them spy” to the rather absurd “I’m not on Facebook anyway”. Not so much difference to the US.

  • Terrence Andrew Davis

    listened in
    silence, “for she won’t hear of anything but each one marrying his equal,
    holding with the proverb ‘each ewe to her like.’ What I would like is
    that this good Basilio (for I am beginning to take a fancy to him
    already) should marry this lady Quiteria; and a blessing and good luck–I
    meant to say the opposite–on people who would prevent those who love one
    another from marrying.”

    “If all those who love one another were to marry,” said Don Quixote, “it
    would deprive parents of the righ

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  • JustBeeper

    Would people in UK/US be happy that their secret services break the laws each day?

    Would they have the impression that it matters for their personal life?

    Would they think, they have a chance to change that?

    if the Guardian gets such visits, any other paper would expect to be
    bothered with the same Mafia-style “visits”. Certainly only for the
    good of their country … and the safety of their employees. We don’t
    want anything to happen to them, do we?

    Ignoring this this
    looks a lot like the “right or wrong, our country” and “don’t bother me
    with uncomfortable things” attitudes in UK / US. You can criticize
    individuals, groups and companies, but when it comes to officially
    talking about grave issues related to politics or national attitudes,
    it’s called “bias”.

    And “bias” does not sell …

  • George

    So true.

    Bad thing regarding Germany and its politicians is that, after the election, the topic will dissolve immediately. No one of them really identified the spying as the mass breach of our basic rights but only as an “internet thing, whatever this ‘internet’ may be”.
    So the threat is only seen by a few; gladly there’s “The SPIEGEL” who keeps the story in the media.
    We can only hope that US and UK media get their things together and start fighting. We’ve seen how governments treat the media if thei’re uncomfortable with the stories they come up with.

  • Christian Fahrenbach

    Attention shifts in Germany, too… There were several polls asking people about the importance of the NSA-revelations and they all come to the conclusion that most people don’t care (see here, only in Germany, sorry, e.g.; ; NSA is less important than Weather, Holidays and Food & Drinks).

    From my point of view, media attention may soon change: Although many media outlets try to keep the topic alive right now, they may shift to other more promising issues.

    Last weekend, several newspaper had big stories about where this lethargy may come from. In Süddeutsche Zeitung (not online), it came down to four points – some of which in my opinion may also hold true for anglosaxon media:
    – Digital Surveillance does not make for good pictures. (Compared to the easy illustratable “man-with-headphones”-surveillance in former East Germany.)
    – People have a feeling of “I cannot do anything against it anyway.”
    – Parties decline further examination due to the upcoming elections (with the Social Democrats also having expanded surveillance rights for the US after 9/11).
    – It’s just too hard to understand that all the data may be stored _forever_, people don’t get that.

  • M.H.

    If a chief redactor has to go in Germany, because he did not fulfill the paper’s owner’s expectation, it would be a scandal the news paper would hardly survive. Rupert M. does not have problems like that. And he is not known as a fighter for freedom and democracy,

    • Adrenalin

      Can’t agree on the first part. DER SPIEGEL just kicked two editors in Chief (Georg Mascolo and Mathias Müller von Blumencron) it was a small note only. Same for “DER STERN” chief editors change now and then without anything happening.

      But I agree to the rest in your newer postings. Sadly the public is tired to hear about NSA, Prism Tempora and -what is even worse- the scandal doesn’t play an important role in september elections :((

  • Peter Sennhauser

    Jeff, when I asked you about the “American Paradox” I was still living in San Francisco and strongly believed that americans deeply care about what their government is doing – at least when it comes to the myth of freedom. That since has changed.

    I also remember one part of your answer: Private companies like Google, you said, are more aware of our awareness about what they are doing with our data than any government, since they have to take in account that customers always have a choice (while voters, at least durng terms, do not). I used to argue the same way: That Google & Co are more certain to protect their customers interests than any government.

    Taking in account the minimal momentum the NSA affair got in the US, I’ll not use that argument ever again, let alone believe that any majority of US voters will ever overcome the lobbyists “arguments” about endangered jobs or “terrorist threads”.

  • Sven

    Let me tell you another paradox: Activists and journalists in germany are wondering why the public doesn’t react to their coverage. And the public (in my personal perception) is already tired of the topic.

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  • Ina

    as a german i would say it has something to do with the constructing of foreign enemies. the same papers and people arent really critical when it comes to things that were debated in our own government, like collecting of meta-datas or something. (it was stopped bei courts, not by government or critical mass/press)

    same with the parties. they r “disgusted” about this nsa and gchq stuff at the moment, but they wanted to do the same stuff in the past. and i am sure that the german secret services are doing the same things. another thing is the profit orientation of the news companies. at the moment it is the big story, but tomorrow there will be articles about why it is important to collect all the data and stuff. also i think that the majority of germans dont care about their privacy…sadly.

  • Steven

    There is another American Paradox. They are suspicious of government in any form but don’t care about the “unintended” and illegal surveillance by the NSA of them. Let alone missing of all checks an balances when analysts are able to decide by themselves whom to spy on without even giving any reason or justification.

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  • Achim

    I just checked two other European nations: The online edition of French “Le Monde” has the NSA on “la une”, at the very top. Sweden’s “Dagens Nyheter” (with a standing reputation of fightiung for civil rights etc.) has if not only ranging after Somalia and Syria, but even after sports, recently released CDs, national retirement pension reforms, and discriminative employment policies by Stockholm’s underground operator. (Which fits in nicely in a country whose late Prime Minister, Olof Plame, in an interview with Der Spiegel in the late 70’s, said that privacy was not an issue in his country, because the Swedish state was benevolent, so gathering all the information was for the people’s benefit, a country where you can check out everybodys tax declaration on the internet.)

  • Hans

    As a German I can assure you that you are glorifying the German media and the Germans in this article. The bitter truth about the NSA scandal is that the last week clearly revealed that most Germans don’t care either nor the media. Yes, I can admit that there was quite some reporting about PRISM, probably much more than in USA and UK. But the media only started to really complain a few days ago with the Guardian incident, because now German journalists felt the threat. Check the media archives and you will see that the outrage in German media only really got momentum with this latest development. German journalists NOW write big articles because they have now understood that they are a target as well.

    • Hans

      Should have read “[…] that the last weeks clearly revealed that most Germans don’t care […]”. People caring for privacy in Germany were really disappointed to see not much of an outcry when the scandal was reported. You could really tell that most people living here don’t seem to care, or maybe they didn’t understand why this is a threat to their lives as well.

  • German media splashes big on NSA scandal, but seems too lazy to track down Laura Poitras in Berlin. Verflixt!

    I recently spoke with top editors here about this – if a central figure in the “Edward Snowden Affair” were holed up in Chicago – you can bet a Sun-Times or Tribune reporter would have located her and got a scoop weeks ago. Verflixt!

    I too married am an American who “married into a German family.”
    My wife is German, we live in Berlin, my father-in-law’s name is Wolfgang.
    My wife was born in the DDR, so privacy, as you can imagine, is rather a persistent topic of discussion.

    But, still I find it very difficult to generalize about Germans and their views + actions on privacy.

    There are so many vexing contradictions that persons not living in this society cannot readily see.

    Beispiel: Germans will fight tooth and nail to be able to tell Google they don’t want to have a photo of their house on gMaps. Yet, readily accept that their government requires them to register many personal details with their local city office whenever they move. Authorities can enter a house at any time to count the number of TVs a person has and fine them for not paying for watching over-the-air broadcasts.

    If you want to meet with Merkel, a journalist will have to get a Presseausweiss, or Press ID.
    Sounds simple, and I have one. But to obtain it I had to turn over copies of highly confidential information about how much money I earn as a journalist, who my clients are, and copies of my contracts. Despite the fact that none of these are German clients.
    To top it off, every journalist’s home address is printed on the Presseausweiss.
    Talk about chilling effect.

    These are only a couple small examples of the complexity over the privacy discussion here, in Germany.

    FYI: I did a quick Kayak search and found 22 airports OTHER than Heathrow that one can connect between Berlin and Rio. Why did The Guardian choose Heathrow for their courier to pass through? Seems pretty stupid in hindsight.

    • Verena

      I disagree with you on some levels. Being German myself I think I have a say in this. Germans trust their government and administration with data, maybe because we have such an issue with privace that we know (or believe) data will be kept confidentially. We believe our spy system is too weak to controll us and we think that we can punish every mistake politics do (and it has turned out to be true quite a couple of times recently, when a huge number of high-ranked politicians including our president and some ministers had to leave their seats). On the contrary, we have zero trust in companies, especially foreign companies. So we won’t leave any data to them easily. In my little German world, this makes perfect sense :-)

      • Thanks.

        I recall it was the downmarket BILD Zeitung that took down the German President for his phony Ph.D. credentials and not a high-minded paper like Die Zeit, or Die Welt.

        My wife has recently petitioned to see her Stasi file. The new government allows her to see which of her former neighbors were informants, and that is remarkable.

        I wonder if one day in the future Americans will be able to petition their NSA file to see what their government had on them.

    • Bjoern Michaelsen

      Just a small correction: Authorities can not simply walk into your house to count TVs, its just that these guys at the door wave around an official looking ID which gets them to make most home owners _believe_ they have the every right to invade your home …

      • Thanks for the clarie.

        “Ausweis, Bitte” is commonly heard here.

        Residents here surrender so much personal and detailed to the state that it is common for ordinary people to believe that officials of any stripe certainly must be allowed to have full access to inspect and account for any and everything you do.

        The TV hooligans exploit this conditioned response.

        Law firms that specialize in speculative invoicing exploit this.

        It is a huge problem when you are forced to surrender so much of your personal privacy to a government. Any government.

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  • Bartox Mancuso

    If someone crosses an important line, you outta shoot them. Shoot them dead, this is the position of Americans NRA.

    And if someone I dont trust (my neighbour, fellow countryman etc) to exercise responsibly with respect to how to exercise their own freedom at the expense of mine, head them off at the pass. Inculcate through all the traditionally mind numbing conduits of media and social preasure, what should and should not be acceptable for us to believe. This I would venture to say is the German position with respect to its political and journalistic establishments. Especially in the light of Germanys place in the world, its pseudo or even outright Messianic positions it has taken the mantle of in recent years.

    Germanys seemingly hidden desire to compete with the USA on issues of moral grounds mixed with an almost revenge minded orientation to achieve the premacy it always desired aside, I think an important parallel and paradox has been skipped. I think I have already tried to make a parallel between extremes when outlining NRA and NSA considerations with respect to the kinds of peoples observing them. If it is not readily apparent then I will help clearify it for you.
    What shouldnt be missed here is, it is not a parallel between the NRA and the NSA that has been posited but between the NRA and the self appointed defenders of freedom whom make half baked arguments, citing indignation over the NSA and its complicit lackeys, the Anglo-American population as a whole. The so called Anglo-American world has a history of belief, practice and faith in Democracy. Germany does not. The peoples of the Anglo-American world have well founded reasons, historicly based, that the secret police will not come knocking on their door someday to perscute because of the information it has about you, laying around their data bases.
    It is a question of the trust we have in the motives of our fellow citizens and how we choose to ask the law or barring that our own power to alter the behavior of others that is really at question here. But there is a diffrence between cultures and their relationship with their own past and thus their fellow citizens which produce the “accent” of political positions we see manifest in the so called Anglo-American world and the Germany.
    The paradox here lay in, how is it that the NRA and those in the German world (and in that part of the so called Anglo-Saxon world) whom criticizes its recent actions be taken to be the same creature? Well, as I already stated above the paradox should already be understood.
    I argue, my world, the so called Anglo-American world (a term I deeply resent since I am not Anglo but maybe it comes out like suger to a German) has sufficent tenacity and virtue to endure the implications of abuses from information gathered by the NSA should it come to be. I argue Americans are chronicly underestimated primarily by the German politico-Media complex for reasons I have already expressed above.
    While the NSA was exposed, most Americans had already believed prior to the Edward Snowden issue that the possiblity servailance of their internet and phone coversations were a real possiblity and that its acceptance was percieved to be a necessary evil. This is not to say WE ACCEPT persecution but to say.. Once again, we are a tenacious DEMOCRACY and can resolve for ourselves the abuses that may arise from the thing we already accepted.
    If Germans want to soft pedal how great they feel they are and down grade Americans at the same time…, all the while giving just enough back to us to say, despite your inferiority we are on the same page.. Let them. But we in the Anglo-America world are a free people without a history of Absolute Racial Supremacy and the political military machinery to carry it out.
    Incidentally, in America you have people of all diffrent races and cultures. We dont make a petri dish of our minorities. In the name, America is not a race it is a civilization and the light of the world, no matter who tries to undermine it.