I was visiting my native New Jersey for a family event the day of the Polk ceremony, and managed to get a press pass so I could attend (thank you, Polk and Pulitzer winner and Rain fan Bart Gellman!). Greenwald and Poitras arrived together at JFK while the awards assembly was already in progress. There was a phalanx of reporters and photographers waiting for them in the lobby of Roosevelt Hotel, where the awards were being presented, and outside customs at JFK. The presenters changed the order of award presentation to accommodate their schedule, saving the National Security Reporting awards for last. The whole thing was thrilling and hugely satisfying to see.
More importantly, it was exceptionally widely watched. And this is what I want to talk about here.
Of course I’m just speculating, but I imagine Greenwald and Poitras decided that if they timed their return to coincide with their acceptance of their award, they could make it maximally difficult for the government to do anything excessively vindictive and heavy-handed. It’s not just the sound bite the government would bee up against — “Two Polk Award Winners Arrested En Route to Receiving Journalism Award.” It was the massive attention focused on their return. All those photographers, at JFK and at the Roosevelt. All those intrepid fellow award-winning journalists, and dozens more covering the event in the gallery and at the press conference afterward. If the government had tried to move against Greenwald and Poitras just then, it would have faced a remarkable amount of real-time scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, there was never going to be a worse time for the government to act than during the half-day window of exceptional focus and watchfulness the Polk ceremony created.
Why does this matter? Because it suggests that whatever you might think of the substantive value of this or that award (and it’s true that with Tom Friedman using three Pulitzers to mangle his metaphors and Obama launching drone attacks from atop a Nobel Peace Prize, one might reasonably conclude that such awards can be handed out somewhat haphazardly), there’s no doubt the awards still garner great attention, attention that can act as a check on unconstitutional governmental vindictiveness.
For this reason, I was hugely disappointed that Time Magazine made the safe pick of Pope Francis for its Person of the Year, relegating Edward Snowden to #2. Pope Francis isn’t at risk of arrest, disappearance, torture, and murder. Snowden most certainly is.
For this reason, too, I’m pleased that Snowden has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. When I tweeted about this back in January, I was surprised at how many people, citing Nobel Laureate Obama among others, responded along the lines of “The Nobel Prize doesn’t mean anything.” Look, maybe you yourself are not impressed by prizes like the Nobel, but if you care about Edward Snowden (along with journalists and other whistleblowers) and appreciate the sacrifices he’s made for freedom and democracy all over the world, wouldn’t you want to make it more difficult for the government to arrest or mistreat him or worse? And if you do want to make such things more difficult, don’t you see that “US Government Arrests Nobel Peace Prize Winner Snowden” would at least to some extent serve that objective?
I think there are two general reasons people reflexively display their cynicism in the face of awards. One is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “The Church of the Savvy,” which consumers of establishment media pick up by osmosis and then begin to ape. The other is an odd form of narcissism, because after all, if an award doesn’t matter to me, then it shouldn’t matter at all.
All of which is weird, when you stop to think about it. Maybe you don’t care about the Academy Awards, but that doesn’t mean winning one doesn’t enhance an actor’s star power, increase her earning potential, and broaden the scope of roles she’ll be offered. Similarly, whatever else you might think of journalism awards, they can make it harder for the government to interfere with journalists exercising their First Amendment rights, or to throw whistleblowers in prison for espionage.
So those Polks and Pulitzers matter, and we should be glad when they're awarded to people who deserve them. And here’s hoping the Nobel committee does the right thing in October, and gives Snowden some more of the recognition he deserves and some more of the the protection he needs.