CBS Correspondent John Miller’s report last night on 60 Minutes broke little news about the National Security Agency, but was surely interesting from an access point of view.
Miller couldn’t resist, nor could his producers, pointing out several times that cameras, TV and probably reporters had never been given such access. And, putting aside the crimes or heroics of Edward Snowden, and skipping the report’s journalistic and ratings impact, what’s this say about the NSA?
Simply, that the crisis enveloping the NSA — aka, Never Say Anything and No Such Agency — is significant enough to motivate one of America’s most secret organizations to go public, become proactive, lead with the facts as it sees them to correct critics’ and enemies’ assertions and in all ways take this crisis head on.
According to Miller, inaction and secrecy and no comments had resulted in the NSA’s deciding that it has not told its story well. This is a baseline tenet of crisis management.
If those who want to see you fail pummel your organization and you choose not to respond, then only your critics’ view of you will reach the public.
There are rare instances in the lives of journalists when an interview subject or topic that was forever off-limits presents itself. I once read a memo written by a top editor at a major newspaper who interviewed Fidel Castro at a time when Castro did no interviews and access to Cuba was forbidden.
John Miller is not a regular 60 Minutes correspondent and he appropriately noted in his opening that he’d once worked for the NSA. It is likely that in the months of negotiations between the NSA and CBS that the NSA said, in essence, ‘if you want us to talk, we’ll only talk to Miller.’ You can also take it to the bank that when 60 Minutes pitched the story, it waved Miller under the noses of the decision makers because he had worked there.
Already, Greg Mitchell, writing in The Nation, calls the report a whitewash. Mitchell, running off a list of recent 60 Minutes faux pas, calls Miller an “FBI/police/NSA propagandist.” Many other critics of Miller and CBS weighed in as well.
It’s not at all unusual for organizations in crisis to “shop for a reporter.” This is something that most news organizations resist, aware that they’ll be targets of criticism like Mitchell’s. But sometimes the story is so tantalizing and elusive, the means justifies the end — at least in the minds of the ratings counters.
And while all those criticisms of Miller may be entirely valid, there is an element of whining jealousy in them as well. Would other news organizations have sought that story? Surely nearly every critic’s publication and show has already. Would any of those critics have switched places with Miller? Almost all. Would they have asked and gotten answers to tougher questions? Maybe.
But we strayed into journalistic rites and sensibilities. This is about the NSA’s choice — and surely someone at NSA sat with a list of those news organizations that asked for what Miller got and said, ‘we’ll take Miller and 60 Minutes’ — to tell its story.
Like it or not, trust it or not, criticize it or not, the NSA got its story out. It hit a couple of singles for the NSA side, told people how odd and dangerous Snowden really is and came across as reasonable and dedicated to its mission, legally constrained and fighting the good fight on behalf of the nation’s security.
I’d be willing to bet that the NSA’s PR department — who wants to do PR for an agency that never talks? — listed those three conclusions as the leading crisis-countering messages it sought to put out there when it convinced NSA top dogs it was worth doing a little public barking.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s chief, clearly wanted to correct “facts” about what the NSA does and does not do with data. That opportunity may have been part of the NSA’s “deal” with CBS on the interview in the first place. Alexander probably convinced a lot of people on the fence about the Snowden leaks.
Let the fight continue about Miller, 60 Minutes success or failings, and whether what the NSA does is generally needed or not so much. From a crisis management viewpoint solely, the NSA told its story and tens of millions of Americans heard it.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.