On Sunday night, star New York Times media reporter Ben Smith published a story about how Reality Winner, an NSA source for The Intercept, was sentenced to over five years in prison after leaking a confidential report to the investigative outlet. Smith argued convincingly that The Intercept failed to take proper safeguards to protect their source, and the site acknowledges institutional errors were made. Where the story missed the mark was in neglecting to mention the fact that in recent years sources for both the New York Times and Buzzfeed have also been prosecuted for leaking; Smith was editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News from 2011 until earlier this year.
In 2015, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was convicted of leaking to the New York Times “about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.” Sterling was sentenced to 42 months in prison and served over two years before he was released in early 2018.
Earlier this year, former U.S. treasury official Natalie Edwards pled guilty to one count of conspiracy after “leaking confidential financial reports [via] disclosing information related to Russia and President Donald Trump’s associates” to Buzzfeed in 2018. Edwards faces between zero and six months in prison as part of her plea.
In 2018, former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee James Wolfe was convicted of lying to the FBI about communications with reporters. One of the reporters was Ali Watkins, who covered the Senate Intelligence Committee for Buzzfeed among other stops. Wolfe and Watkins had an affair that was covered in-depth by the Times. Ultimately, Wolfe was sentenced to two months in prison.
Maybe Smith and the New York Times believe that their reporting processes in these three collective instances played no role in their sources getting prosecuted. However, even if that’s the case they should not have omitted these stories, which are a matter of public record and not ancient history. If they’re going to go after a competing media outlet, they owe it to readers to grapple with their own experiences of government sources getting busted.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment from Outkick asking why these facts were not included in his story, and if there was a clarification for whether he believed they were not relevant context.
[Update: Smith emailed the following response: “I was working off leaked documents from The Intercept, so that’s what the story was about — the Reality Winner incident.”]
The Intercept is a site that was launched with hundreds of millions of dollars in seeding from billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The site gained major notoriety in its Edward Snowden reporting. Glenn Greenwald is the face of The Intercept but this particular story, a report on Russian cyberattacks, was one that he passed on and it got delegated by Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed to journalists Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito.
The Intercept sent a document that Reality Winner printed at work to the NSA media affairs office in the process of reporting the story, which enabled a way for her to get caught. Smith accused The Intercept of “startling carelessness.” In response to the New York Times story, The Intercept has issued a statement taking accountability for what went wrong. They also reiterated a line written by Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple in 2017: “the mistakes of the leaker before the Intercept even received the document would likely have sealed her fate, regardless of any clumsiness by the reporter in verifying the scoop.”
The Intercept also contends:
Ben Smith’s column dramatically understates the impact of The Intercept’s aggressive journalism and independent reporting in a range of areas, from the elimination of environmental regulations, police abuses, and the Trump administration’s war on undocumented immigrants and its catastrophic response to a global pandemic, to national politics, technology and surveillance, and the ongoing wars fought by United States and its allies. Notably, last fall, we published a major, highly sensitive investigative project based on anonymously sourced materials — The Iran Cables — in partnership with the Times. And the Times itself earlier this year heralded our yearlong exposés from 2019 into 2020 about the Bolsonaro government as “what a free press is supposed to do: They revealed a painful truth about those in power.”