Why Americans Got Bored of the NSA Story

Snowden is so last year. And that's reformers' problem.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a 'hero' is seen during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) (National Journal)

When President Obama announced his long-awaited reforms to the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance program, it was met by a collective yawn. It was the Friday before a holiday weekend, and not many Americans were listening. Those who were were finding it difficult.

Fifty percent of Americans have heard nothing about the president's proposals, and 41 percent said they'd heard just a little, according to a new Pew Research Center/USA Today poll. Taken together the numbers mean that nine out of 10 citizens had little interest in what Obama had to say following six months of heated policy debate in Washington.

It's not that the issue isn't important (the poll also found 53 percent of respondents disapprove of the government's bulk collection practices around Internet and telephone metadata), but that something was missing — an element that would capture the imagination of Americans and allow them to pay attention to an important (wonky!) area of policy.

In his speech, Obama stuck to policy, avoiding nearly all talk of controversial leaker Edward Snowden. "I am not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations," Obama said. That, perhaps, is where he lost much of America. The question of whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a villian has been a favorite debate topic of Americans since news of the survellaince program first broke in June.

Google trends shows a spike of interest back in June when Snowden first went public with information detailing the NSA's vast data-collection programs. Interest in Snowden climbed even higher later that month, as publications probed the privacy implications for Americans and ramifications for his personal life.

By August interest levels had dropped to less than a quarter of that peak interest and never regained momentum, with interest in the NSA running roughly parallel to interest in Edward Snowden over time. There was another spike in interest around late October, when news broke of the NSA using its surveillance operation to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

By avoiding talk of Snowden, Obama seems to think he's taking the high road. "The sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light," Obama said in his speech. There's certainly truth to that, but as any journalist who's written an anecdotal lede can tell you, you lose something when you take the human element out of your argument: people's ability to care.

Libertarian critic Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky who has been outspoken in his opposition to the NSA's intelligence-gathering practices, has a different way of looking at it. "I think there would have been absolutely no reform without Snowden," Paul said after Obama's speech. "We wouldn't have any of this, we wouldn't have any discussion."

Snowden isn't just the person who birthed the story; he also helped keep it in the conversation. A Google search for "Edward Snowden" and "hero or villain" turns up close to 10,000 results. And anyone who attended a holiday party this year was likely asked to weigh in on the dichotomy by at least one well-meaning relative.

If the reception of the president's speech on Twitter is any measure, Paul may be right about how deeply bound Snowden is to the story, or at least to the hearts and attention spans of Americans. The press conference was held just before MLK Day weekend, and practically everyone — from citizens to journalists to whole news outlets — was tweeting like they were already halfway out the door.

Was #Obama this boring when he was an adjunct lecturer? #InsufferableGasbag

— teriobrien (@teriobrien) January 17, 2014

This is the most boring coverage of the NSA scandal yet.

— DWB (@dwbronner) January 17, 2014

Watch Obama's latest boring history lecture, we mean big NSA speech LIVE: http://t.co/t3myQxQVyA

— Slate (@Slate) January 17, 2014

Some even surmised the boringness of Obama's speech was employed as a political strategy.

Obama's Administration's strategy: make NSA speech so boring and wonkish that no one cares to listen carefully.

— Jeremy (@chicagoterp) January 17, 2014

It wouldn't be the first time in 2014 that politicians have employed such a strategy. Earlier this month, Chris Christie patented the boringness strategy when the New Jersey governor spoke for nearly two hours about traffic delays on the George Washington Bridge and, mostly, how he is really, truly a Good Guy™ and how badly hurt you can get when you trust people.

It was a master class in political gloss: He seemed transparent (because there were so many words!), but he didn't actually answer any useful questions about say, whether his deputy chief of staff even had the authority to implement the alleged "traffic study" or why people in his office sought revenge on Fort Lee in the first place. He did, however, manage to keep talking until there was nothing reporters wanted more than for him to stop.

Obama isn't trying to cover up a personal scandal, but, like Christie, he may benefit from taking out the heat. Snowden was the lens that made Americans pay attention to this issue in the first place. By excising him from the conversation, Americans might just forget why they were so mad to begin with.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4665) }}