Anchor vs. Fugitive: How Brian Williams played it safe with Ed Snowden

NBC’s prime-time special with Ed Snowden made for fascinating television, but I must admit I came away frustrated.

If you wanted to learn more about Snowden’s thoughts, desires and dreams, his philosophy of spying and his rationalization for what he did, much of that was on display.

As a personality profile of a guy who changed the global debate over surveillance but remains a shadowy figure, the program worked quite well. The 29-year-old data whiz is smart and articulate.

But he is a fugitive from American justice, and I think Brian Williams missed a golden opportunity.

Williams is easy to watch, a good conversationalist, and funny as hell, as his appearances on “SNL” and the “Daily Show” make clear. Landing Snowden was a great get, even if it was done through an alliance with Glenn Greenwald, who was also interviewed, and obviously Snowden felt confident that his interlocutor would be fair.

But I kept waiting for Williams to pin him down: You knew you were breaking the law, and now you don’t want to face the consequences of your actions? Do you think you should get to pick and choose which laws you follow? If you think this was a great act of conscience, why do you deserve to be let off scot-free?

In short, there never came a time when the anchor pressed the accused spy and tried to knock him off his talking points.

Yes, Williams asked the obligatory questions:

“A lot of people say you have badly damaged your country.”

“When the president and others have made the point that you should have gone through channels, become a whistle-blower and not pursued the route you did, what’s your response?”


“In your mind, though, are you blameless?”

“Have you done, as you look at this, just a good thing? Have you performed, as you see it, a public service?”

“On the range between ticker-tape parade and life sentence, what do you think ought to happen to you and if and when you return to the United States?”

Williams let Snowden give lengthy answers, almost never jumping in to interrupt. Often he just went on to the next question.

Now everyone has his own style, I get it. Brian’s is more conversational. And there is the tyranny of time. The more he drills down on one point, the less time he has for Snowden’s answers on spying, hacking, 9/11 and other subjects the audience might find interesting.

What’s noteworthy is that Williams sometimes added critical caveats taped after the interview. After an exchange in which Snowden was asked about leaking secret military information, Williams told the audience: “Just for clarification here, note that Snowden didn’t deny turning over military secrets. He asserted instead they wouldn’t be published.” Another way to handle that would have been to tell Snowden, “you didn’t answer my question.”

Snowden, who shared the bulk of his NSA documents with Greenwald and the Washington Post’s Bart Gellman, invoked the media in defending his massive leaks.

“That’s the reason that journalists have been required by their agreement with me as the source, although they could obviously break that or do whatever they want,” he said. “But I demanded that they agree to consult with the government to make sure no individuals or specific harms could be caused by any of that reporting.”

Mediaite had some fun digging out Greenwald’s harsh assessment of Williams after the anchor’s one-year anniversary special on the killing of Usama bin Laden:

“This bin Laden show. was hagiography in its purest, most propagandistic, and most subservient form. This is typically the role Williams plays — he cleanses and glorifies American government actions, especially military actions, with his reverent, soothing, self-important baritone — but he really outdid himself here.”

Glorifies? And what’s wrong with his baritone? Presumably Glenn’s opinion has improved since then.

Perhaps Williams faced the dilemma that part of the country sees Snowden as a traitor as part of the country views him as a hero, so he felt he needed to split the difference. If so, he succeeded.

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