Activism, Not Journalism? Radical Filmmaker Laura Poitras Shares Washington Post Byline on NSA Story

The Washington Post recently made waves with a story on the National Security Agency’s domestic data mining project “Prism,” but interestingly one of the co-authors of the article is a radical, left-wing filmmaker who has been a loud critic of U.S. counterterrorism policies.

The article, “U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program,” authored by former Post writer Barton Gellman and filmmaker Laura Poitras, is a bold expose of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.

While Gellman is certainly to be considered a “journalist,” Poitras is more of an activist who has quite a history of criticizing the United States since the attacks on September 11, 2001. She has, for instance, called the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba an “illegal” prison and has called treatment of suspects “legalized torture.”

It is clear that she is an activist, not a journalist. Yet nonetheless here we see the Post giving her a byline on a straight news story.

The Washington Free Beacon recently noted how much of a departure from normal journalistic practices this is for the paper.

While traditional media outlets have previously covered stories broken by activists in alternative publications, the Post’s NSA story is the most prominent example of an established paper giving a political activist an actual byline in its news section.

The Beacon reports that former Post staff writer Gellman said he was contacted by the filmmaker who had been in contact with Edward Snowden, the man who has recently become known as the NSA “whistleblower.”

Poitras, Gellman, said, wanted help crafting the story for publication.

Despite her obvious role as a liberal activist, the paper treated Poitras as if she were a regular, unbiased journalist.

According to the Beacon, when asked about this, the Post defended its actions.

Martin Baron, executive editor of the Post, defended Poitras’s involvement, calling her “a respected documentary filmmaker, the winner of numerous prestigious awards, and a MacArthur fellow.” He said she did not have a role in actually writing the story.

“She was intimately involved in our getting the story,” said Baron in a statement. “She didn’t write the story, and she didn’t edit it, but she worked with Bart Gellman to make sure we had it. The documents to which we gained access revealed a major surveillance program, and the story was accurate. We had no reservations about giving her a byline as credit for her role.”

Certainly stories that have originated from activists aren’t out of bounds for journalists or journalism, but this bylining does raise questions of propriety. It is an interesting development in the world of journalism, to be sure.

In 2006 Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for My Country, a film that explored the Iraq War’s impact on that country’s residents.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange also reports that Poitras is making a documentary about his life.

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