In October of last year, Glenn Greenwald explained to a Reddit forum why Edward Snowden hadn't been making any big media appearances. Despite "the biggest TV shows and most influential media stars calling and emailing," he said, Snowden "does not want the attention to be on him, but rather on the disclosures that he risked his liberty and even his life to bring to the world."
Cut to Wednesday, when NBC News capped off a week of promotion with an hour-long interview with Snowden. Coming nearly a year after he first revealed himself to the world, the interview was a major leap in terms of his public profile — but it was also another step in a media strategy that has been evolving ever since he leaked NSA documents to Greenwald and other journalists.
After his initial interview with the Guardian in June of 2013, Snowden did indeed stay almost entirely off-camera, confining his interactions with the media to statements sent to news outlets and to online chats with members of the public.
In August, Greenwald told the Washington Post that there had been preliminary discussions with TV networks for a Snowden interview, but that they had fallen through. He outlined the reasons for this:
“The reason we didn’t do it is three-fold: 1) I don’t want to distract attention away from NSA spying and the substance of the disclosures by re-focusing attention on Snowden; 2) Snowden agreed with my suggestion that doing an interview at this time was not productive for the same reason: he wants media attention on NSA spying, not on himself; and 3) I saw no real value in the interview — it would be used just as crass entertainment — and so didn’t want to be involved right now.”
In the later months of 2013, though, Snowden began gradually opening up his access to the media. He gave a lengthy interview, in person, to the Post's Barton Gellman, who wrote many of that paper's NSA stories. He talked to Time magazine after being named runner-up for its Person of the Year issue.
He finally gave a television interview in January, but it was with a German station and received very little attention in the United States.
The Williams interview, therefore, is on a different scale from anything that Snowden has previously done. Despite its diminished state, network television remains one of the most effective ways to get a message across to a mass audience, and Williams gave Snowden a great deal of latitude to make his points about his actions. It seems likely that, when factoring in the many times clips of the interview were played across NBC platforms, tens of millions of people saw Snowden speak in the past week.
In an interview with CNN's Brian Stelter, Snowden adviser Ben Wizner said the decision to agree to an interview now was a calculated one.
"[Waiting so long] made it much more likely that it would be a substantive conversation — because there was a year's worth of history that was made," he said. (Even so, much of the interview focused on Snowden the person, not the documents he leaked.)
Snowden now faces a new kind of choice. After the Williams interview, the demand from other anchors and outlets is likely to increase. Does Snowden go on a media tour, or does he retreat again?