Opinion

The value of Glenn Greenwald's take-no-prisoners style

Greenwald may irk many members of the media. But his hyper-aggressiveness is a valuable corrective to institutions that are too easily swayed by the government.

The Press Freedom Foundation has compiled a rather depressing list of elite journalists who have embraced Michael Kinsley's takedown of Glenn Greenwald's new book, which tells the tale of Edward Snowden and the string of blockbuster stories that exposed the extent of the surveillance state. In response to the what was easily the scoop of the year, Kinsley kinda-sorta called Greenwald a criminal, and, most glaringly, said the government should have final say over what classified material is published.

Like Chris Hayes, I sometimes think Greenwald is a bit too aggressive for his own good. Some of his ideas and theories also strain credulity. But the Kinsley contretemps has demonstrated some major benefits of Greenwald's aggressive style, which has revealed the weakness of many journalists' commitment to the fundamental principles of their discipline, as well as the tendency for mainstream media institutions to show far too much deference to the government.

The first point ought to be obvious. As New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan details, Kinsley's belief is wholly at odds with any respectable theory of journalism. Embracing the Kinsley view would entail torching journalistic independence for a stenography service when it comes to government secrets. It straightforwardly implies that the Times ought to have been prevented from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Though many of Kinsley's cheerleaders later clarified their views, it's pretty shocking to see journalists of good standing jumping on a baldly anti-journalism position.

As David Carr explained last year, Greenwald's personality is deeply irritating to many mainstream journalists. And thus we see what it takes for many pundits to look past their commitment to traditional journalistic principles: a sufficiently obnoxious person. That is valuable knowledge.

The second point is more subtle, but it is underappreciated. There is another force at work when it comes to government leaks — what Steve Randy Waldman calls "the economy of influence":

Individually, there is plenty of eccentricity, plenty of noise. People go "off the reservation" all the time. But pubic intellectualizing is a collective enterprise. What matters is not what some asshole says, but the conventional wisdom we coalesce to. When the noise gets averaged out, the bias imposed by the economy of influence is hard to overcome. And the economy of influence pulls, always, in directions chosen by incumbent holders of wealth and power, by people with capacity to offer rewards and to mete out punishment.

A comparison to James Risen might be instructive here. Risen, one of the greatest reporters in the nation, is featured heavily in the recent episode of Frontline, "The United States of Secrets." He tells the story of how he obtained the first parts of the original NSA warrantless wiretapping story back in 2004, but that Bill Keller, then executive editor at The New York Times, was successfully buffaloed by the White House into spiking the story. Risen had to threaten to publish a book under his own name (and without the protection of the Times) to overcome Keller's deference to the administration.

Risen is under investigation and may go to jail for refusing to reveal his source to the Department of Justice, for which he deserves very high praise. But his approach is fundamentally one of the traditional journalist working within the system. The value of Greenwald, by contrast, is that even when he's working within regular outlets, he operates as an angry outsider, always questioning, always on the attack. It's a countervailing pressure against the mild, moderate willingness of the likes of Keller to simply follow the government line in silence.

If American democracy is working as it's supposed to, then Risen's approach might be good enough, and Greenwald might be tilting at windmills. But if the system is corrupt, reaching into the highest reaches of our most powerful journalistic institutions, then Greenwald's approach has much more value.

The Frontline doc bolsters the latter argument, showing how Kinsley's vision of a government that bows to the law and respects its citizens is almost laughably naive. Blatant violations of the law were almost immediately followed by legalization of the lawbreaking. When almost the whole top tier of the Justice Department threatened to resign over the original iteration of the warrantless wiretapping program, a pliant FISA judge asserted the whole operation was legal. And when the rest of the story came out and the ridiculous FISA fig leaf wasn't good enough anymore, Congress passed a bill not just expanding NSA power, but retroactively immunizing telecom companies for their participation. This same dynamic appears to be happening again regarding the Snowden disclosures.

Twelve years ago I would have said that Risen's approach was the best one. But given the complete lack of accountability for what has happened during the fail decade, I'd say Greenwald's approach is a vital complement.

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