NEW YORK -- The Guardian and The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service on Monday for their coverage of the National Security Agency, reporting which followed last year's bombshell disclosures from former contractor Edward Snowden.
The Pulitzer board's decision to honor NSA coverage, and specifically to single out the reporting as a public service, makes a strong statement about the importance of the worldwide surveillance revelations, especially given that Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking the classified documents.
The Pulitzer committee praised the Post's "authoritative and insightful reports" as helping "the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security." The committee described the The Guardian US, the New York-based newsroom of the British newspaper and the one that was eligible for the prize, as having sparked "a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy."
On Friday, four journalists at the forefront of the NSA reporting -- Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman and Ewan MacAskill -- were honored with the prestigious Polk Award for their coverage.
But the Pulitzer board did not distinguish between individual journalists, instead awarding its public service prize to the news organizations responsible for the initial reports on how the NSA had secretly collected millions of Americans' phone records and Internet data.
On June 5, Greenwald, then with The Guardian, reported that the NSA had collected phone records for millions of Verizon customers. The following day, the Post and Guardian raced to report on the NSA's secret Prism program, which allowed the U.S. government to collect data -- email, photos, video -- directly from companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook. Three days later, Greenwald and Poitras interviewed Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room as the former contractor, then 29 years old and unknown to the world, first revealed himself.
Reporting on the complicated Snowden documents was a team effort at both the Post and the Guardian, with numerous reporters and editors involved. Still, the decision not to recognize specific journalists could be interpreted as a safer move, especially given how Greenwald has rankled some in the media establishment and often breaks from journalistic convention in strongly expressing his point of view in interviews, blog posts and on Twitter.
Of those receiving the prize, only MacAskill, a defense and security correspondent with The Guardian, remains a full-time employee of either publication. Greenwald and Poitras, a filmmaker who forged the integral relationship early on with Snowden, joined First Look Media last year. Gellman, a former Post reporter who also communicated with Snowden before the initial revelations, has been working with the paper specifically on the Snowden material but is not a full-time staffer.
Honoring Snowden-related reporting, regardless of whether by individuals or a team, is sure to spark controversy.
The U.S. government has claimed -- occasionally through leaks of its own -- that Snowden's leaking of classified documents has been detrimental to national security. Some officials and members of Congress have alleged, without citing specific evidence, that Snowden worked with Chinese and Russian intelligence services. Snowden maintains that he took no classified documents to Russia.
In a statement to The Guardian, Snowden said the Pulitzer board's "decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government."
"We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation," he continued, "including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognises was work of vital public importance."
In honoring The Guardian and the Post for public service, the Pulitzer board also recalls its 1972 award to The New York Times for its reporting on the Pentagon Papers.
Daniel Ellsberg, who was employed by the RAND Corporation, a think tank working with the Pentagon, leaked the classified history of U.S. involvement with Vietnam to the Times as the war raged on. When the Nixon administration sought a court order to stop the Times from publishing, Ellsberg provided the documents to the Post and later to other news outlets. The Times won a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing that the government does not have the ability to prevent publication -- a U.S. legal precedent not shared by journalist counterparts in the U.K.
Last summer, U.K. government officials compelled The Guardian, a British newspaper with a U.S. online edition, to destroy several hard drives containing the Snowden documents. The Guardian editors did as instructed, but the symbolic move did nothing to thwart coverage of NSA surveillance -- a story that seems to have not yet reached its conclusion.