The new media versus the old

The new media venture by Glenn Greenwald has caused the traditional media to sit up and take notice. The combination of Greenwald’s blockbuster scoops on the NSA, his openly expressed contempt for the way that much of traditional media operates, and the deep pockets of the financier underwriting it, has made them realize that the cozy world in which they operate is soon going to be under serious attack.

Bill Keller, who was an awful government toady and a cheerleader for the Iraq war when he was editor of the New York Times and who has now become a columnist for the paper, invited Greenwald to an online exchange on the future of journalism that he then published under the title Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?

It was brutal. Keller was hopelessly overmatched but the exchange produced some interesting bits that showed how widely different are their views on the proper role of the media. Right from the outset, Greenwald takes on the myth of the ‘objective’ journalist, something that establishment journalists venerate and which they think they practice.

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

We intend to treat claims from the most powerful factions with skepticism, not reverence. Official assertions are our stating point to investigate (“Official A said X, Y and Z today: now let’s see if that’s true”), not the gospel around which we build our narratives (“X, Y and Z, official A says”).

Greenwald gets in some digs at Keller, giving this as an example of journalistic subservience:

A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Keller was the one who had this policy while he was editor of not calling torture torture because Bush-Cheney told him not to.

Greenwald also rejects the idea that journalists owe a special allegiance to one set of people or one particular government over another when it comes to reporting news.

As for taking into account dangers posed to innocent life before publishing: nobody disputes that journalists should do this. But I don’t give added weight to the lives of innocent Americans as compared to the lives of innocent non-Americans, nor would I feel any special fealty to the U.S. government as opposed to other governments when deciding what to publish. When Goldsmith praised the “patriotism” of the American media, he meant that U.S. media outlets give special allegiance to the views and interests of the U.S. government.

One can, I guess, argue that this is how it should be. But whatever that mindset is, it is most certainly not “objective.” It is nationalistic, subjective and activist, which is my primary point: all journalism is subjective and a form of activism even if an attempt is made to pretend that this isn’t so.

He also gave a vigorous defense of WIkiLeaks, the outlet that outraged the establishment media by exposing so many things that they should have discovered if they were doing their job properly. The New York Times and other major outlets have never forgiven WikiLeaks for that and have been accomplices of the US government in demonizing it.

But to the broader point: even if one were to assume for the sake of argument that WikiLeaks’ more aggressive transparency may occasionally result in excess disclosures (a proposition I reject), the more government-friendly posture of The N.Y.T. and similar outlets often produces quite harmful journalism of its own. It wasn’t WikiLeaks that laundered false official claims about Saddam’s W.M.D.’s and alliance with Al Qaeda on its front page under the guise of “news” to help start a heinous war. It isn’t WikiLeaks that routinely gives anonymity to U.S. officials to allow them to spread leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability.

It isn’t WikiLeaks that prints incredibly incendiary accusations about American whistle-blowers without a shred of evidence. And it wasn’t WikiLeaks that allowed the American people to re-elect George Bush while knowing, but concealing, that he was eavesdropping on them in exactly the way the criminal law prohibited.

There was a fun exchange about New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is the kind of conservative that liberals (and NPR listeners) love because he speaks in complete sentences and occasionally says something reasonable and thus makes him supposedly a ‘moderate’. I put him in the same category of Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd, people whom I never waste any time reading unless someone else has read them and is pointing to something stupid and laughing at them.

This bit begins with Greenwald saying that his new venture plans to hire people from across the political spectrum.

Greenwald: “We welcome and want anyone devoted to true adversarial journalism regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, and have already been speaking with conservatives journalists like that: real conservatives, not the East Coast rendition of ‘conservatives’ such as David Brooks.”

Keller took the bait and rose to the defense of the columnist.

Keller: “Your apparent contempt for David Brooks is revealing. Presumably what disqualifies him from your category of ‘real conservatives’ is that he puts reason over passion and sometimes finds a middle ground. As Lenin despised liberals, as the Tea Party loathes moderate Republicans, you seem to reserve your sharpest scorn for moderation, for compromise. Look at today’s Washington and tell me how that’s working out.”

Big mistake. It enabled Greenwald to expose the false label of ‘moderation’ merely disguises power worship and service to the elites.

Greenwald: “My ‘contempt’ for David Brooks is grounded in his years of extreme war cheerleading and veneration of an elite political class that has produced little beyond abject failure and corruption. I don’t see anything moderate about him at all. I was just simply pointing out that if you want to pride yourself on hiring conservatives to write for your paper, he is hardly representative of that movement.”

Yep, that nails Brooks, all right.

Greenwald ends his side of the exchange with one more smack down of Keller and the paper he works for.

Embedded in The New York Time”s institutional perspective and reporting methodologies are all sorts of quite debatable and subjective political and cultural assumptions about the world. And with some noble exceptions, The Times, by design or otherwise, has long served the interests of the same set of elite and powerful factions. Its reporting is no less “activist,” subjective or opinion-driven than the new media voices it sometimes condescendingly scorns.

As usual, people who debate Greenwald tend to rue the day and Keller is no exception. I used to wonder why they would take him on at all or seem unprepared for what he dishes out. I think it is because they live in such a bubble that they think that their narrow framework of thought encompasses the entire spectrum and hence it should be easy to defeat people like Greenwald in debate. But Greenwald doesn’t play within those limits. He challenges the very framework and freely goes beyond it, leaving them nonplussed, if not exactly minused.


  1. trucreep says

    You’re absolutely right. I think all of the vitriol and anger being thrown at him is due to the fact that he is uncompromising and absolutely convicted in what he’s doing. He speaks only to the facts, he speaks only with reason, and he is completely unapologetic about it. And I think that is the biggest part as to why so many people in the “establishment” (if you call it that) dislike him – they can’t use their typical fallacies to attack his position. Throw that on top of the absolute deluge of information that proves and backs up everything he says.

    And you can see some of those old techniques used in the critique of his position against “objective” journalism. They try to frame it as him having an opinion and trying to present it as if it weren’t. He acknowledges advocating for a certain position, but backs it up with real data and facts that support it.

    His criticism is actually very much aligned with what a lot of people here say about creationism. The whole, teaching both sides argument is absolute garbage, we equate it with teaching the flat earth in geography. The same goes for what Greenwald is saying. You can present an argument, but to treat government claims without any skepticism, to defer to them without any challenge, that’s not objectivity.


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