The importance of journalists being adversarial

Many people in the US do not realize the extent to which the government has gone to instill fear in journalists. One way they have done this by threatening to cut off access to them. This should not be a serious problem if journalists were doing their jobs the proper way, which is to investigate those things that governments want to keep secret. But so many of them have become dependent on insider gossip provided by anonymous high level sources that being cut off can be a career-ender. They have become content with becoming part of the government propaganda machine.

Since much of the gossip they receive is meant to advance a factional agenda, the reporters may think they are making news. So when an ‘anonymous high level government official’ in the CIA leaks some damaging gossip about (say) the NSA as part of the perennial struggle among government agencies for money and influence and power, the reporters may persuade themselves that they are intrepid reporters because some in the FBI may get annoyed with them, but they are still part of the propaganda apparatus. A highly skilled reporter may be able to play factions against each other and thus unearth important information but few have the ability to play that role well. Most are just content to become permanently allied with one set of sources and never say anything that might jeopardize access to their gossip pipeline.

There is also a difference between low-level sources providing information in secret to protect themselves from retribution and because they want the truth to come out, and high-level sources who ‘officially’ leak to further their own agenda or the agenda of the government faction they work for. The former is admirable, the latter should be treated with contempt. But most journalists swoon over the latter and neglect cultivating the former.

The second way that the government intimates journalists is by making so much information secret and then threatening them with leaking secrets or even espionage if they publish them.

Those establishment journalists who think they can be friends with those they cover and attend the same social functions are fooling themselves. As soon as you start to worry about how the people you are covering will react to your stories and whether they will still talk to you, you are done for. In this interview with Harper’s Magazine, Glenn Greenwald says that journalists must burn those bridges right from the start and take an adversarial stance towards the powerful if they are to do their work properly. This is what he has chosen to do. I cannot see him being invited to the White House Christmas party or to hobnob with Congressional leaders at their homes, the way so many White House correspondents do.

In this interview Greenwald was asked whether he was fearful about reporting stories that he must have known would bring down the wrath of an extremely vindictive US government, and he said that he could not allow himself to be intimidated and that he took inspiration from Edward Snowden.

Because the government relies on this climate of fear. They want you to be scared. But this is what I’ve been working for ever since I started writing about politics and doing journalism. So I was pretty resolved that I wasn’t going to let fear impede what I did. I had to commit to doing it in a really aggressive and adversarial way.

But the thing that really focused me was seeing how courageous Snowden was. I mean, here’s this twenty-nine-year-old kid who has made a conscious choice to subject himself to a substantial risk of being in prison for the rest of his life, and yet he never evinced even a molecule of remorse or regret or fear. He was completely convinced and tranquil about the rightness of his choice. That kind of courage is contagious. It made me want to do justice to his sacrifice. And that meant being as adversarial as possible when it came to the U.S. government, and not letting my own fears restrain what I did.

Greenwald also took issue with people like the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg who dismissively treats the NSA revelations as not revealing real threats to civil liberties but are merely “abstract, conjectural, unspecified.”

There’s an important distinction between people who are extremely privileged and who believe in and obey pieties and orthodoxies — people like Hertzberg, who aren’t dissenting from anything and who are basically defenders and supporters of political power, the royal court. The real measure of how free a society is isn’t how its good, obedient servants are treated; it’s how dissidents are treated. And if you go and do any kind of investigative journalism and talk to whistleblowers, or talk to people who are dissenting or are otherwise engaged in activism against the government, or journalists who do that, you find this incredibly disturbing, intense climate of fear. Nobody will talk unless they’re using very sophisticated encryption technologies. So yeah, good little New Yorker writers [like Hendrik Hertzberg] who love Obama . . . you know, he’s right. For him it is abstract and conjectural. But for people who are engaged in actual critical thinking and opposition to those in power, surveillance is menacing. It intimidates people out of engaging in real dissent. That’s its principal danger.

It is extraordinary to see this level of fear among those US journalists who are trying to do real reporting and their sources who are bothered by government illegality. And it becomes even more extraordinary when the establishment journalists do not even sense this fear and instead blather about how inferior press freedoms are in other countries.

The dismissive attitude that so many mainstream journalists display towards Greenwald is something to behold. They can’t seem to get over the fact that he does not want to be part of their club or be invited to their parties and has no hesitation in exposing the shallowness of their work. The fact that he has broken a bigger story than they could ever hope to in their entire lives, and that he was able to do so precisely because he so openly despises the way they operate, must be really sticking in their craw.


  1. slc1 says

    Folks who report for the lamestream media are doing what their employers want them to do. They don’t want to rock the boat. I doubt that the current muck da mucks at the Washington Post would print the Woodward/Bernstein articles that contributed to bringing down Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. The days of intrepid editors like Ben Bradlee and supportive publishers like Kathrine Graham are over. It’s left to the independent bloggers like Greenwald to hold the government accountable. Unfortunately, the Greenwalds of the world don’t have the resources behind them that the Post was able to provide Woodward and Bernstein.

  2. Dunc says

    I’m reminded of an anecdote attributed to John Pilger:

    During the Cold War, a group of Russian journalists toured the United States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked by their hosts for their impressions. ‘I have to tell you,’ said their spokesman, ‘that we were astonished to find after reading all the newspapers and watching TV, that all the opinions on all the vital issues were by and large, the same. To get that result in our country, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here, you don’t have that. What’s the secret? How do you do it?

  3. says

    Actually, journalist is not to be resisted, Journalist make government as a counterweight. Good governance will always give positive attention to the journalists, as government control

  4. steffp says

    Thanks for the anecdote, Dunc!
    It pretty much says it all. The German Nazi had to build a whole “Ministry of propaganda”, kill and incarcerate journalists, and provide official guidelines on how to report on everything, practically writing 80% of the newspaper content themselves. Anal-retentive control freaks, as their Stalinist counterparts. Co-opting underlings to the privileges of the rich & powerful elite, giving them the feeling of being “one of us” works so much better… the rest is intimidation, Guantanamo.
    As for the Woodward/Bernstein articles… their heroism is overestimated: after all, the FBI was spying on tens of thousands of suspected peace, anti-racism, and equality activists at the same time. No one cared to write a single article. But when Nixon spied on the opposition party, representing roughly 50% of the electorate, and major parts of the elite, <B<that blew the lid.

  5. colnago80 says

    Well, the Washington Post was just purchased by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. I wonder what his attitude will be toward government malfeasance as he is reputed to be rather libertarian in outlook and suspicious of government.

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