Today is the anniversary of the first news report based on the Edward Snowden documents and it is interesting to look back at how perceptions have changed over that time about Snowden and the journalists he used as a conduit for that information. A fascinating aspect has been the reactions of the so-called ‘liberal’ media because they got squeezed between the principle that transparency about how government works is always to be preferred and their desire to protect president Obama and his administration who have been revealed to be liars and law-breakers when is comes to spying on people.
One sees this split on display in the way these journalists seized upon the review of Glenn Greenwald’s book by Michael Kinsley. Establishment liberal journalists lined up to praise Kinsley’s review in an oblique ‘heh indeedy’ way, thus avoiding the need to explicitly say where they stood, even though the NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan herself thought that Kinsley’s review was unfair.
Barry Eisler looks at the visceral reactions to Greenwald among mainstream journalists. He says that the responses to Kinsley’s review of the book where, among other things, he says that Greenwald comes across as a ‘self-righteous sourpuss’ and ‘unpleasant’ and that the government should be the ones who decide what is secret or not, is very revealing about their mindset
Almost by definition, most establishment journalists accept an implicit framework within which they can work while still being accepted by the establishment of which they’re a part. This doesn’t mean they can’t do excellent journalism, and many of them certainly do. But for others, I suspect there’s a sense of subornment, a recognition that they’ve sold out, that they’re owned or at least rented by the people they pretend to hold to account. A recognition like this, no matter how oblique, isn’t psychologically comfortable. And the uncompromising work and aggressive deportment of someone like Greenwald acts as a kind of mirror in which these people are forced to view the most unflattering version of themselves. The admirable reaction would be to hold yourself to a higher standard and try to do better. The more common reaction is to hate the person who is causing your increased awareness of your own shortcomings.
Of course I could be wrong, but this theory would explain some of the differing reactions to Greenwald, on the one hand, and Barton Gellman, on the other. After all, Greenwald and Gellman have both covered some of the same ground and broken some huge stories based on Snowden’s whistleblowing. Indeed, both have won Polk awards, and the organizations they reported with have won Pulitzers, for their Snowden-based reporting. And yet I’ve never seen fellow journalists going after Gellman on a personal level. I’ve seen no attempts to marginalize him as an activist, a go-between, a perpetrator, etc. Certainly I’ve seen no calls for his imprisonment.
What explains the different reactions? Sure, some of it can be attributed to temperament. Gellman strikes me as having a knack for disarming people, a knack Greenwald has no apparent inclination to develop or deploy himself. But I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. Correctly or incorrectly, I think Gellman is widely perceived to be adversarial within the system, and this is something the system is willing to accept even if the reporter in question does the kind of superb journalism Gellman does. But Greenwald, again correctly or incorrectly, is widely perceived to be adversarial to that system. And for the system itself, that kind of adversity is an unpardonable sin.
I think Eisler is right. Many journalists see working for the New York Times as the apex of their career ladder and the fact that Snowden and Greenwald are scathing in their contempt for that paper seems to really irk them, since it undermines the entire framework with which they view themselves.
Kinsley’s anti-Greenwald screed in the New York Times Book Review, and Packer’s longer and subtler essay for the British magazine Prospect, deliberately ignore or finesse the question of what the government has taught us through its black budgets, its institutional paranoia, its super-secret and extra-constitutional spycraft. Those two articles, and others like them, amount to a sophisticated effort to change the subject on the Greenwald-Snowden affair now that its initial impact has faded, and also to reassure by way of bewilderment: In the face of all this confusion about who’s right and who’s wrong, the best policy is to keep calm, carry on and leave all this boring stuff to the experts. Instead of focusing on the larger issues of privacy, power and secrecy articulated by Brandeis or on the corroded nature of contemporary democracy, Kinsley and Packer urge us to deplore the perceived personality defects or political misjudgments of Greenwald and Snowden, and throw up a virtual smokescreen of invidious comparison. OK, maybe that whole NSA thing wasn’t super awesome – but you could be living in Communist Russia!
Any pretense of a critical relationship toward power — which was once supposed to be the journalist’s role in a democratic society — has been abandoned altogether (in Kinsley’s case) or eaten away to nothing by reasonable-sounding nuance and dispassionate analysis, as with Packer.
Greenwald has become somewhat of a Rorschach test. Reactions to him are a good indication of how the speaker perceives the relationship of a journalist to the government.
One thing that has changed is that no longer is Greenwald dismissed as a mere blogger or activist or polemicist. However grudgingly, they call him a journalist, however much it may stick in their craw that he belongs to the same profession as they.