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2013 Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture in Journalism

Edward Snowden---the former employee who disclosed the National Security Agency’s massive data and phone call surveillance program--- may come across as narcissistic and arrogant, but he has done an enormous public service by blowing the whistle on official activities of questionable legality and constitutionality.

That’s the judgment of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson, who told a crowd of more than 200 people at the UT School of Journalism on October 9 that the Obama Administration, despite its liberal leanings, has pursued more criminal investigations of whistleblowers and journalists than any administration in modern history.

Robinson pointed out that the Snowden case had a direct impact on journalists who have found themselves the targets of the Justice Department because of their pursuit of stories about national security issues. The administration’s sweeping anti-leaks campaigns had intimidated potential sources, and forced journalists to use anti-surveillance tactics like safe rooms, encryption and disposable mobile phones to protect confidentiality and do basic reporting work.

The administration was responding in part to the dangers and anxieties that arose in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But Robinson also blamed the “control freak nature” of this administration, which has been even more secretive and prosecutorial than its immediate predecessor, the White House of George W. Bush.

After Snowden’s revelations, Robinson noted, President Obama said he welcomed a national conversation about finding the proper balance between the state’s need for secrecy to protect national security versus civil liberties concerns. But it took Snowden’s disclosures to make the public aware of the NSA’s widespread surveillance and compel the president to address the issue. Until now, Robinson said, the NSA had operated “a secret program approved by a secret court making a secret ruling.” This was, he argued, no way to address an issue of major constitutional importance.

A longtime journalist for the Washington Post, Robinson was giving the annual Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture in Journalism at the Belo Center for New Media on the UT Austin campus. Besides his twice-weekly column, Robinson makes frequent appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and several other news and opinion programs. He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns on Obama’s first presidential campaign and election, “showcasing graceful writing and grasp of the larger historic picture.”

In illustrating Obama’s obsession with news media coverage, Robinson recalled receiving a phone call, from the president the day after he won the Pulitzer. Obama congratulated him briefly, Robinson humorously recalled, but spent the bulk of the call chewing him out for a recent column. The family of the late Mary Alice Davis (B.A., Journalism, ’65), a former columnist and editorial writer for the Austin American-Statesman, created the Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture series in 2005 to honor her legacy. The lectureship brings notable journalists to campus to discuss the role of journalism in society.

In introducing Robinson, Glenn Frankel, director of the School of Journalism and himself a former Washington Post reporter and editor, said the Obama administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers meant that “all over Washington, doors and windows are being slammed shit and secret activities---some of them clearly illegal and unconstitutional, are happening behind closed doors and behind our backs.”

“This is not just about Edward Snowden…or even Barack Obama,” said Frankel. “It’s about the fate of American journalism and the future of American democracy.”

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