As high school seniors in Philadelphia, Barton Gellman and his co-editors of the school paper published stories about sex, contraception and abortion. Or tried to. Before the papers could be distributed, the school’s principal destroyed them and fired the editors. Gellman sued and won a favorable settlement, presaging the willingness to challenge authority that has defined his extraordinary journalistic career.
Already a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Gellman, 54, added a third medal this year for leading The Washington Post’s publication of ground-breaking, controversial stories about America’s secret global surveillance. As Gellman wrote in the Post: “Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and local records of whole populations.”
The revelations ignited a diplomatic uproar, a political challenge to the White House and a fierce public debate about the ethics of publishing top-secret information. But controversy is nothing new to Gellman. He has pushed the journalistic envelope on many occasions, including during his stint as the Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 1994 to 1997, when he covered the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the political ascent of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gellman once described himself in an interview as a “very moderately observant Jew.” His allegiance to truth-telling clearly stems from his background. In preparation for a recent speech before the Student Press Law Center, Gellman searched out and contacted his old principal, Carol Wacker.
“I wish there were more people doing investigative journalism,” she told him. She, too, has come to admire the student who caused her so much trouble.