01/06/2014 12:28 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

Taking Snowden's Christmas Message Seriously

Many in the mainstream media, itself at times a target of illegal snooping, have dismissed Edward Snowden's Christmas greeting as delusional and demagogic. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell called it "absurdly, wildly overblown," political columnist Joy Reid called it "made-up, horror-story ideas," and Bob Cesca in The Huffington Post concluded Snowden was "trying to incite hair-trigger paranoiacs."

In his one-minute and forty second Christmas message, aired initially in Great Britain and widely available on the Internet, Snowden said things like we "have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance watching everything we do," and that "the microphones and video cameras [of Orwell's 1984] are nothing compared to what we have available today." He noted that children born today "will grow up with no conception of privacy," a problem because privacy "is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be."

With Snowden's Christmas message, as with much of the coverage of his revelations of NSA spying, the intense light of investigative journalism has been directed primarily at the messenger. The mainstream media's initial focus on Snowden's whereabouts shifted to his character, and turns now to rhetorical flourishes in his Christmas message. O'Donnell, for example, was quick to point out that Snowden's Christmas remarks are "provably untrue" because "no one is watching everything we do," and Reid undertook to disprove them by noting that, unlike 1984, "there are no televisions in our homes watching us."

Lost in the hostile focus on the messenger, of course, is the message itself.

Beyond the information he provided on NSA spying and data collection -- since called "almost certainly" unconstitutional by one federal court -- the initial message was that the extent and nature of government snooping are social issues to be openly discussed. Although the media wasn't listening, Snowden's Christmas remarks broadened the message: the concept of privacy itself, and what we are to leave of it to our children, is important, is in peril, and must be added to the conversation.

Well before any of today's technology, Justice William O. Douglas warned nearly 50 years ago:

The privacy and dignity of our citizens [are] being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen -- a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a [person's] life.

No less than the U.S. Privacy Protection Study Commission, back in pre-Internet and pre-cell phone days of the late '70s, agreed with Douglas: "The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable."

More than Justice Douglas and the Privacy Commission could ever imagine, we are living in that society today. Much of what happens in public is captured by surveillance cameras and cell phones; the government collects and stores a record of who among its citizens speaks to whom; a record of the sites we visit on the Internet is compiled by private interests and can be shared with the government; and, as we've learned, our ever-present electronic devices can be used without our knowledge to track our every move and the cameras in them to record much of what we do. Days ago, for example, we learned of an NSA program dating back to 2008, code named "Dropout Jeep," designed to plant malware in iPhones to access text messages, emails, voice mail, and contact lists, listen to phone calls, activate the camera, and track location. It is thus vital, in a democratic society, that we have a public discussion about the government's ability to exploit today's and tomorrow's information gathering technology before the next Richard Nixon or J. Edgar Hoover.

Justice Douglas, like Edward Snowden, pointed out that "Big Brother in the form of an increasingly powerful government and in an increasingly powerful private sector will pile the records high with reasons why privacy should give way to national security."

Which is not to say that placing the proper limits on surveillance and data collection is an easy matter, or that the Obama administration has an Orwellian thirst to control our conduct. The setting of limits necessarily draws us onto a very slippery slope with privacy interests at one end and national security at the other.

Snowden, as he has indicated, understands this perfectly well. Indeed, the point he has sacrificed much of his own freedom to make is that, in a true democracy, the necessary line-drawing between two critical public interests must be based on an intelligent public discussion, which, heretofore, has been suppressed by all post-9/11 administrations. As a result, the NSA and the rubber-stamp FISA Court have, like kids in a candy store, been left to govern their own voracious appetites.

We talk of leaving a sustainable environment and the prospect of prosperity to our children. To this, Snowden added in his Christmas remarks that we are also the stewards of the right to privacy -- or the remaining fragments of it -- that our children will inherit, and that, just as privacy is an important aspect of the freedom we've paid dearly for over time, our children will pay a price for its evisceration. As Bertrand Russell told us, "When you want to teach children to think, you begin by ... providing privacy and solitude for them."

Any number of reasons may explain the media's inordinate focus on Snowden, instead of on the issues he's raised. Glenn Greenwald, himself the target of other journalists, has characterized mainstream journalists as "loyal spokespeople to those powerful factions [over which] they pretend to exercise oversight," and says liberal news outlets like MSNBC skirt the issues Snowden has raised because they're committed to supporting the Obama administration. Others attribute the phenomenon to a tendency in popular journalism to reduce complex issues to personalities, or to pique over not being approached by Snowden in the first place.

Whatever the reason, it's a pity that the unrelenting focus on the messenger, rather than on the message of the dangers of vast, unchecked government surveillance and the meaning of privacy in a modern democracy, impedes a public discussion of the common interest.