Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Storyteller gets scoop!

Laura Poitras, filmmaker and MacArthur genius, might seem like an unlikely person to break such a big news story as the one about NSA data-miningBut Edward Snowden thought she was exactly the right person for the job. She describes how he approached her and how she got the "scoop" in an interview in yesterday's Salon. There are many fascinating aspects to this story -- but I am sure you don't need to read one more blog about the relative merits of Snowden's actions, one more blog that places him somewhere on a continuum between traitor and hero. What I think is so interesting is the fact that Poitras was contacted by Snowden in January.

That means months went by before the story actually broke. What was happening during all that time? Poitras won't say, yet. She does say the identity of her source was not known to her "until very, very recently." So there was obviously some work being done to investigate the source, to see if what he was saying sounded credible. By February she was discussing the possibility of going forward on the story with The Washington Post's Bart Gellman. 

But that was February. The story broke in June. In the Salon interview, Poitras offered this response to the unasked question about the time lag, and about her reluctance to disclose how she was investigating: "I’ll tell my story, you know, about my reporting. I don’t need reporters reporting on my reporting. So maybe that stuff contributed to different timelines. But. . . I don’t want to tell the whole story now, I don’t think it’s the right time. And I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller. I’ll tell it when I’m ready to tell it, in detail."

Poitras knows that even in the news business, you need to take time to get it right. Even when the story screams out to be told now. If you are an investigative reporter, you need to actually investigate. The difficulty in finding out the truth about any action taken by the NSA makes this a mystery that deepens almost hourly. But Poitras & Co. felt they had enough substance to bring the story to the people. And even after the story has broken, the story behind that story cannot be told in a rush. An Academy Award nominee in 2006 for her documentary My Country, My Country, she knows that each story has its own rhythm, and needs time to unfold. And so this new story will be told in good time. As Ben Franklin so eloquently put it: "Great haste makes great waste." I shudder to think what would have become of Snowden's revelations if the reporters had been careless and sloppy in a rush to publish.

So, three cheers for story-tellers who take the time to get the story right!

Most of us will never, ever be called by anonymous sources who say they have secret info that will rock our world. But if we pass on information we do not know to be accurate, or fill in the blanks with details of our own devising, we may find ourselves quite far from the success we are rushing to achieve. And in our haste, we can waste some pretty great opportunities.

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