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Glenn Greenwald: Columnist or Criminal?

Just because objectivity can't exist in journalism doesn't mean writers shouldn't strive for it

Gage Skidmore

"Meet the Press" host David Gregory and CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin both recently raised the question of whether Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story about Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks for The Guardian, should enjoy the usual protection accorded to journalists or be arrested for divulging state secrets. That in turn prompted David Carr and Matt Taibbi to reflect on the relationship between Greenwald’s advocacy and his journalism.

I come down squarely on the side of Greenwald against Gregory and Sorkin. Greenwald’s reporting followed the canons of accurate journalism. So did Barton Gellman’s similar coverage in The Washington Post, but Gregory and Sorkin did not raise the possibility of Gellman and The Washington Post’s editor being sent off to jail in leg irons. This is, perhaps, a result of their journalistic backgrounds: Gellman worked at mainstream-media publications like the Post and Time for many years; Greenwald, meanwhile, spent his career as a provocateur at Salon, sticking his thumb in the eye of MSM figures like Gregory and Sorkin before the Guardian hired him last year.

But I want to consider the more general question: Can someone be an activist and a journalist? What is the role of advocacy in journalism? Is there such a thing as objective journalism? Carr and Taibbi take somewhat different positions. Carr thinks there is a difference between journalism and advocacy, but doesn’t quite say what it is, and thinks Greenwald should still be treated as a journalist; Taibbi doesn’t think there is a difference. “All journalism is advocacy journalism,” he writes. “‘Objectivity’ is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public.” There are several different issues here, and I’ll take them one by one.

Activists and advocates: Not all journalism involves advocacy—baseball box scores and perfunctory crime reports, for instance—but in the broadest meaning of the term, I would agree with Taibbi that political journalism usually contains an element of advocacy. Of course, some papers have tried to eliminate it—Washington Post editor Len Downie famously refused to vote—but it is increasingly acknowledged that when journalists try not to be advocates by presenting both sides of a debate equally, they unwittingly give the impression that the opposing sets of argument have equal merit. That has led to a greater willingness to permit journalists to express judgments and to frame issues.

But there are different kinds of advocacy or activism that can accompany journalism, and they merit different degrees of skepticism from readers. Some writers work for a political or lobbying organization with views on the subject they are writing about, or have a financial stake in what they are writing about. Or some work for a publication or television network that demands uniformity from its writers on certain subjects. Fox comes to mind, or the publications put out by liberal or conservative political think tanks. I’ve worked for partisan publications throughout my career and, at times, have had this problem.

Glenn Greenwald is an advocate, but he is not working for a political organization or lobby. He is working for The Guardian, which does not appear to dictate to its writers what they should say about their subjects. Ezra Klein at The Washington Post or David Weigel at Slate or my current colleagues on The New Republic are these kind of advocates. This kind of advocacy can still twist the coverage of people and events to fit political preconceptions. It’s difficult to avoid wishes shaping one’s perception of reality. To limit the distortion, authors have to subject what they do to checks and standards.

Objectivity: Taibbi writes, “Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that's all it is, striving.” Striving is, however, what is important, and what differentiates coverage that is trustworthy from coverage that is not. Being objective doesn’t mean being without opinions, but making an effort to present the facts at hand accurately. It’s not a fairly tale, but an approachable ideal. That requires rules about evidence and sources, many of which were developed by the New York Times in the early twentieth century. Editors, to take a prime example, generally ask for writers to have two sources for any controversial claims. One can suffice if there is written or aural or video evidence.  

Most of the so-called mainstream media in the United States follow these practices. Some foreign publications, including some very famous ones, do not. I have tried several times to confirm surprising stories that appeared in foreign papers only to come up empty. In one case, the story claimed to be based on a transcript of a meeting, but the reporter had not actually seen transcript—someone read portions of it on the phone. Some web publications seem to eschew any rules about sources. And columnists sometimes think they don’t have to have the same kind of evidence for their assertions as a reporter does.

There are also other ways a writer or publication can strive for objectivity. Editors and fact checkers can try to remove distortion that a writer has unwittingly introduced, and editors can insist that a writer listen carefully to both sides of an argument before making a judgment. The result may still not match reality. Mistakes can still be made. But one would expect that, on average, writing that is subject to these kind of checks and rules will be more accurate than writing that is not—and this is regardless of the author’s point of view.

Taibbi’s view that journalism is advocacy and that objectivity is a fairy tale puts the onus of entangling the truth entirely on the reader. It’s the market place of ideas without consumer protection. That’s OK, perhaps, in political campaigns, but it’s not OK for readers reaching judgments about subjects that require extensive knowledge—from climate change to the civil war in Syria. The reader must be able to trust the authors to present the facts fairly; and the existence of rules and checks makes it more possible for readers to trust these authors. Greenwald’s coverage for The Guardian falls well within the realm of trustworthy journalism. He relies on a single source, but a single source that has provided documents that Greenwald and The Guardian took some pains to authenticate.

Attention-getting journalism: That’s really all I have to say about advocacy and journalism, but I want to add a postscript about a different, but related, obstacle to objective journalism. What often skews coverage of current events is not a political bias, but a desire to write something novel and dramatic that gets the attention of editors and readers. I thought of that problem on Monday when I was reading a New York Times editorial on how the Obama administration’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) was bottling up 72 needed regulations.  

In December 2009, I began working on a cover story for The New Republic on the administration’s “Quiet Revolution” in regulation. It would explain how the administration was determined to turn around the anti-regulatory policies of the Bush administration. The editors liked that angle, as did I, and I had considerable evidence that the administration was repairing the regulatory agencies. But I did talk to an expert of regulatory policy who warned me that OIRA would prove an impediment. I studied the matter, and talked to other people, but in retrospect, I didn’t listen sufficiently to her, and the reason I didn’t was because taking her doubts seriously would have screwed up my story. It wouldn’t have been about a “revolution” anymore. I don’t think my mistake was political—I have written my share of critical articles about the Obama administration—but had more to do with wanting the story to get attention.

I single myself out, but I see this happening constantly. Writers and editors crave “angles,” and once a writer and editor are committed to an angle it can shape their perception of the facts. The web, of course, puts a premium on attention-getting and is even more prey to these kind of distortions, but as all publications become integrated with the internet, the problem has become endemic. In the worst instances, such as The Daily Caller’s so-called expose of Senator Robert Menendez, you get all the possible ills that can infect journalism—a political agenda, a desire for attention, and, it would appear, lax standards about objectivity—working together to produce coverage that is itself more scandalous than the scandal it purports to expose. That kind of work is, unfortunately, becoming common among internet publications, and would be a far more worthy subject of Gregory and Sorkin’s attention than the question of whether Greenwald should be arrested for doing his job.