Ben Smith calls Snowden leak ‘scoop of the decade,’ but he wants the next one

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Ben Smith. ()
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Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, certainly wishes it had been his own site, growing as it is like kudzu, that had been granted the National Security Administration leaks supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post. But he's not delusional.

“I’ve asked. I’ve been harassing [Guardian U.S. editor] Janine Gibson about this," he told the audience at an event at the Columbia Journalism School this evening. "I think they felt that, probably maybe accurately, that we didn’t quite have the capacity to sort of handle a story like that. But that’s something we’re building.”

Buzzfeed has been on a tear lately in its effort to generate the kind of deep news scoops legacy organizations have often claimed for themselves. Most recently, the site hired investigative reporter Mark Schoofs, an alumnus of The Village Voice and more recently the investigative reporting nonprofit ProPublica, to start up an investigative team at Buzzfeed.

But Smith's impatience for getting there was tangible, and maybe that's why one of his fellow panelists asked Smith before the audience of journalism students why Buzzfeed hadn't gotten the Snowden download.

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Not that his questioner is unfriendly to Buzzfeed's aims: He was none other than Eric Hippeau, a managing director of Lerer Ventures, which has plowed many millions of dollars into Buzzfeed (and Smith's) efforts.

Smith had already said that his site would have had no hesitation about publishing Snowden's information. He called it the scoop of the decade, and said he doesn't understand all the carping about whether it is ethical to report information obtained by sources like him; traitor, whistleblower: to a journalist there should be little difference.

“He’s a source, who cares,” Smith said. “Anybody who deals with sources knows they have really complicated and distasteful motives. Usually they’re just trying to hurt someone.”

Wikileaks and Snowden-type leaks throughout all industries would not be a rarity, Smith contended, if more reporters were attuned to a new kind of source: systems administrators.

“[They] have so much access to everything in every company,” Smith told Hippeau. “Any investigative reporters who can vibe with the Edward Snowdens of the world are going to be in demand.”

And finally, the N.S.A.'s arrogance almost demanded that the story be told.

“When you think, ‘I want to do this thing that is illegal or bad in some way,’ part of the calculation is, ‘will I go to jail?’ Part of it is, ‘will I lose my job?’ And part of it is, ‘what is the downside if it leaks?’,” Smith said. “Like that is a just a very standard thing for government officials to think about. […] There clearly was never that conversation in the N.S.A. If you just look at the jokiness of the slides and stuff they’re just never thinking, ‘huh what if this document leaks? Maybe it shouldn’t look like this.’ Or, ‘We’re not getting anything interesting from this Angela Merkel bug, but if it leaks it’s going to do huge damage. So let’s not do this.’ That to me is fascinating."

"I don’t think there are that many branches of government that are just that totally delusionally arrogant about keeping their own secrets,” he added.

You can watch the whole proceeding below: