Stop sneering at Glenn Greenwald

Given the reverence American journalists profess for legendary muckrakers such as Woodward and Bernstein, you would think they would champion Glenn Greenwald.

After all, look at what the man has exposed. Greenwald showed us how the National Security Agency has engaged in unconstitutional acts of mass surveillance against American citizens and senseless foreign adventures in mass intelligence-gathering. You’d think that would be worth a few attaboys.

Instead, mainstream journalists such as Vanity Fair’s Michael Kinsley and Meet the Press host David Gregory claim that Greenwald isn’t really one of them. They are complaining that Greenwald won’t do as so many reporters end up doing because of their slavish devotion to objectivity.

That is, unlike most political journalists, Greenwald refuses to become an arms dealer who effectively rents himself out to all sides regardless of the veracity of their claims, by giving “both sides” credence even when the evidence unambiguously shows otherwise.

Greenwald’s journalist-critics are wrong. Their snobbery runs counter to the lessons of journalism history and violates the role journalism is supposed to play in holding governments accountable as well as safeguarding our liberties.

There are many reasons why Greenwald’s work with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to detail NSA’s mass espionage has dominated political discussion, in congressional hearing rooms and around kitchen tables. Greenwald has done all of us a public service by reporting on how the intelligence community violates the Fourth Amendment by surreptitiously reading e-mails, logging phone calls, and tracking Web-surfing habits of ordinary Americans.

This is especially worrisome because the NSA’s tactics, and its violations of the Constitution, have become normalized within the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, Greenwald’s reports on NSA’s dependence on inefficient technology-snooping (including identifying targets based on cell phone tracking regardless of whether the right person has been identified) show that the intelligence community still hasn’t learned the ultimate lesson from 9/11: Dependence on technology is no substitute for old-fashioned human intel.

It turns out Benjamin Franklin was right when he warned that those who would sacrifice liberty for security will have neither. The United States is both less free and even more unsafe than ever.

But for mainstream journalists, the scoops are not enough. Both Greenwald and his reporting practices leave much to be desired.

From where many sit, Greenwald is little more than a preening narcissist who doesn’t play nice with his fellow journalists. He is a “self-righteous sourpuss” (as Kinsley calls him) who is “unpleasant” and charmless. And also a petty, prickly writer who responds immaturely to criticism like a “smug spelling bee champion.”

Your columnist doesn’t know Greenwald personally. But if he is as smug, narcissistic, self-serving, and disagreeable as other journalists claim, it just means that he fits in well with the rest of the profession.

Like Hollywood and the music industry, journalism doesn’t attract sane or well-behaved people. If anything, it is littered with argumentative malcontents, smug and conceited self-aggrandizers, overbearing control freaks, sharp tongued-yet-thin skinned misanthropes, and self-loathing crusaders with martyr complexes.

Certainly not every journalist has the character flaws of a Jimmy Breslin or an Andrew Sullivan. But even the relatively well-behaved (for the profession) can be difficult people.

Yet the problems mainstream journalists have with Greenwald’s demeanor are nothing compared to what they consider to be his biggest sin: his unwillingness to engage in the objective journalism practiced within newsrooms today.

As far as the journocritics are concerned, Greenwald’s reporting lacks balance and even-handedness because he refuses to indulge the perspectives of NSA officials and other defenders of mass espionage. They also think that Greenwald’s lawyerly, adversarial, and advocacy-driven approach to reporting is bad journalistic practice.

Some of them, especially Kinsley and Gregory, think that Greenwald’s collaboration with Snowden on leaking NSA documents is illegal and possibly treasonous.

Kinsley and co. think Greenwald should be posing questions to both NSA officials and whistleblowers, vainly waiting on government officials to speedily obey Freedom of Information Act laws. He ought depend on whistleblowers risking their own lives and liberties. He should refuse to use his considerable legal mind to draw any conclusions.

The critics are wrong, for two reasons.

First, many chroniclers of corruption, from Emile Zola to Ida Wells-Barnett to Lincoln Stephens were hardly motivated by objectivity when they exposed anti-Semitism, lynching, and municipal corruption.

Second, by fetishizing objectivity, mainstream journalists are effectively turning their back on their moral and constitutional obligations to hold governments and other wrong-doers to account.

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown told how she became a school reform activist in a speech earlier this month. She watched American Federation of Teachers aggressively defend teachers accused and convicted of sexual misconduct and other crimes against children, and couldn’t pretend objectivity any longer.

Great investigative reporting is often one-sided because the facts dug up by journalists show clearly that governments, businesses, and people are doing something that is clearly wrong. There’s no way Woodward and Bernstein could reasonably give credence to any defense of Watergate, or that photojournalist Lewis Hine could ignore the horrors of child labor abuses.

Great investigative reporting also involves providing transparency when government officials want squid ink. Journalists of any substance know that you don’t wait on the government to release redacted documents – and constitutionally aren’t required to do so. You print the Pentagon Papers. You don’t wait on the federal government to give you permission to cite them.

By acting as if all sides of an issue must have merit, as demanded by objective journalism, reporters and pundits become little more than arms traders. They are selling column inches to all sides even when the evidence shows otherwise.

The consequences of this go beyond shoddy journalism. Because objectivity as practiced in modern journalism requires reporters to gain access to information from government officials and others with influence, it often leads them to become unquestioning scribblers. This leads them to become too chummy with politicians. This chumminess allows said pols to get away with horrible abuses of power for their own self-enrichment.

American citizens aren’t well served when mainstream journalists such as Kinsley are willing to argue that the government should be the ultimate arbiter of how it should be held accountable for its actions and therefore refuse to provide a defense against government corruption and unconstitutional acts. If reporters and pundits aren’t willing to fulfill their moral and professional obligations, perhaps they should leave journalism and make room for people like Greenwald and anti-corporate welfare muckraker Timothy Carney, who will.

Journalists shouldn’t be arms traders – and they don’t have to be.


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