Betty Medsger, September 2014
In a public lecture and a more intimate, late afternoon Q&A session, author/journalist Betty Medgser explored a fascinating but little-known chapter in U.S. history and U.S. journalism history: the break in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, more than four decades ago. The lecture was titled: “Before Edward Snowden: The Citizen Burglars Who Exposed FBI Spying – in 1971.” When the burglars shared their “liberated” FBI files with journalists – including Medsger, then a young Washington Post reporter – it began an unravelling of the FBI’s PR image . . . from brave crime-fighting organization to reckless political spying outfit bent on disrupting movements for peace and justice.
Medsger’s lecture was based on her book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. That book revealed the identities of most of the activists involved in the burglary – university professors, college students, a cabdriver, etc. In her lecture, Medsger made clear that FBI spying and disruption was heavily targeted against large numbers of African Americans who were not suspected of any crime. Educators and universities were also targeted.
In both the lecture and Q&A session that preceded it, Medsger drew parallels between the activist/burglars of 1971 and today’s whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden. The Media break-in ultimately ignited a debate about FBI spying, just as Snowden’s documents have generated a debate about the NSA’s mass (suspicionless) surveillance.
Medsger spent hours in dialogue with students, student journalists, faculty and community members – and then signed copies of the brand new paperback edition of The Burglary. Medsger is the author of several other books (including Women at Work and Framed), a former board member of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and onetime head of journalism education at San Francisco State University.
A week before Medsger’s appearance on campus, more than 50 students and community people gathered for a screening of 1971 – a new documentary based on Medsger’s reporting on the Media burglary.