What’s in a name? Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman have reignited a debate that last raged at this temperature a few years ago, when WikiLeaks disclosed the Bradley Manning trove. Namely: What is a “journalist”—who is one? The question is not just academic or semantic, in a climate in which, from Assange to Fox News’ James Rosen (whom very few would not consider a journalist), the Obama administration has suggested it could bring criminal charges against those who publish illicitly leaked government information and Representative Peter King has proposed prosecuting Greenwald.
A couple weeks ago, introducing him to the wider world, The New York Times called Greenwald—formerly a First Amendment lawyer who got his start as a blogger, and has never shied from advocacy in his work—a “Blogger, With Focus on Surveillance” (the url calls him an “Anti-Surveillance Activist”) as well as a “lawyer and longtime blogger.” On "Meet The Press" Sunday, NBC’s David Gregory questioned whether Greenwald ought to be charged with a crime for “aiding and abetting” Snowden, and opined, “The question of who is a journalist may be up to debate with regard to what you are doing.” The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi followed up Sunday by asking whether we can call Greenwald a “journalist”—should we be capitalizing the word? adorning it in nice Gothic script? having a couple handmaidens following it around to make sure its long, white train never touches the ground?—and quoted Berkeley’s journalism school dean to the effect (in Farhi’s paraphrase) that “the public should remain skeptical of reporters who are also advocates.”
Meanwhile, the help WikiLeaks has self-admittedly provided Snowden has renewed the debate over Assange’s status. The New York Times reported today that the Department of Justice has continued, quietly, to endeavor to build a criminal case against the Australian. As if to confirm that the line that separates the journalists from the non-journalists remains shaky, in the course of the article the reporters referred to Alexa O’Brien as “an activist,” prompting an angry response from O’Brien insisting, “I am a journalist—and the proper title for me is journalist.” (David Carr, the Times’ media critic and one of that article’s two authors, did not reply to an interview request.)
At paidContent, Matthew Ingram notes, “Someone said recently that journalism has become something you do rather than something people are, and I think that has a lot of truth to it.” Undoubtedly. I would take it a step further, though, and argue that the prevailing definition of “journalist” is a distinction informed by the highly specific norms of a relatively small group of people (the “Beltway media establishment clique,” Greenwald called them) with an interest in including and then closing the door behind themselves.
Take Greenwald. He is a reporter—surely we can agree on that, in that he is somebody who obtains information from sources and then relates it to readers—whose choice in stories and topics is informed by his political beliefs, in this case concerning transparency. (Some have argued that Greenwald’s support for transparency stems from a more specific ideology concerning a fear of Western power, but either way, such are his beliefs.) Greenwald, in other words, would make a lousy New York Times journalist. He would make an even worse National Review journalist (although perhaps a better one so long as it is a Democratic administration!). But he has worked at Salon and now The Guardian, where he fits in pretty well.
Which is to say: the public should remain skeptical of journalists who are also advocates, but even The New York Times has a point of view, and that, too, should be accounted for. (Besides: the public should remain skeptical, period. And a journalism school dean might want to say as much.) Acknowledging that being a “journalist” means different things to different people and at different places should hopefully free us discussants to police the quality of the information being reported and go from there to policing the reporters, rather than the other way around. The government might consider this, too.
There is value in gatekeepers. I like that The New York Times calls itself the “paper of record” and, more often than not, lives up to this billing. It gives us the closest we can get to an unbiased vantage point into what matters and what doesn’t, even if it falls short of that imagined Archimedean location outside the world itself.
So here is a question: did The New York Times report on the massive scoop that Greenwald scored earlier this month? Of course it did, as soon as it could. Maybe this is something to put both the “Beltway media establishment clique” and Greenwald at ease: the Times thought that Greenwald broke news. The rest is commentary.