It takes a special kind of gall to quit a six-figure media job in the doomed year of 2020. But that’s just what Glenn Greenwald has done, following in the martyred footsteps of erstwhile New York Times freethinker Bari Weiss. In a 4,000-word Substack post, Greenwald resigned from his healthy perch at The Intercept, a publication he co-founded, explaining, in his typically piqued and exhaustive manner, that he had been “censored.”
The censorship—an inflated and, in this case, misapplied term that Greenwald would probably mock if used by someone else—concerns a column Greenwald submitted about Hunter Biden’s now infamous laptop. In Greenwald’s view, the column was censored in favor of a pro-Biden narrative being promulgated throughout The Intercept, a once noble publication now laid low by the plague of liberal-leftist illiberalism and groupthink that has become Greenwald’s recent obsession. As part of his comprehensive documentation of his Intercept exit, Greenwald posted the column on Substack, where he said his writing will appear for now.
Greenwald also posted email exchanges with Intercept editors that indicate they thought the column, among other deficits, included sweeping and unsubstantiated claims about media malfeasance and implied Biden family corruption. As Intercept editor Peter Maas wrote, in a section that Greenwald bolded: “Overall I think this piece can work best if it is significantly narrowed down to what you first discussed with Betsy [Reed]—media criticism about liberal journalists not asking Biden the questions he should be asked more forcefully, and why they are failing to do that.”
Censorship! Or, just maybe, an editorial note that a notoriously egotistical writer doesn’t like. That Greenwald chose to bold this section—as if it exemplified the suppressive behavior of what he calls “an increasingly authoritarian, fear-driven, repressive editorial team in New York bent on imposing their own ideological and partisan preferences on all writers”—only reveals his lack of familiarity with any rigorous editing.
You could spend hours of your life that you’ll never get back parsing Greenwald’s resignation letter, his spiked column, the emails from editors, and his feverish tweets about it all. Instead, you could skip to the real problem here, which is that Greenwald seems to think he is beyond editing or critique. As he wrote to an editor, “Recall that under my contract, and the practice of The Intercept over the last seven years, none of my articles is edited unless it presents the possibility of legal liability or complex original reporting.”
There’s no need to exalt editing as a rarefied practice to argue for its importance. A good editor is a useful collaborator who, among other things, corrects inaccuracies and saves a writer from his worst tendencies. Among Greenwald’s is an utter certitude in whatever he does, no matter the klaxons blaring, from colleagues and the evidence right in front of him, that perhaps he might be wrong. Humility and a tolerance of ambiguity have never been hallmarks of his work.
In his resignation letter, Greenwald claims that he felt forced to leave The Intercept and didn’t have much of a plan beyond hoping that his supporters would follow him to Substack, where they can contribute directly to his work. But deeper in the letter, he reveals that he had been considering a post-Intercept future for some time: “I have spent a couple of months in active discussions with some of the most interesting, independent and vibrant journalists, writers and commentators across the political spectrum about the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet that would be designed to combat these trends.”
It would be a new publication, he said, staffed by people from across the political spectrum who, according to a document that they’ve been working on, share a belief that “American media is gripped in a polarized culture war that is forcing journalism to conform to tribal, groupthink narratives that are often divorced from the truth and cater to perspectives that are not reflective of the broader public but instead a minority of hyper-partisan elites.”
An informed media observer, or someone who spends too much time on Twitter, could come up with a list of who might be called to join such a publication: Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Zaid Jilani, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Michael Tracey, perhaps some podcasters notorious for straddling the left-right divide, and anyone else who thinks that threats to speech emanate from a censorious, liberal-dominated culture and not from Donald Trump, corporate power, or police brutalizing protesters in the streets.
Forget Persuasion or Quillette or whatever free speech absolutist publication is currently fermenting in a billionaire’s petri dish. This will be a Voltron of some of the most insufferable people in American media, few of whom do any original reporting anymore, decrying the cancellation of their friends at the hands of frigid elites. Funded by those same elites, it likely will be humorless and dull, hammering on the same tired culture war tropes until they are unrecognizable.
And who will fund such a publication, whose staff will likely expect to recuperate the hefty salaries they are accustomed to? The billionaire that puts libertarian iconoclasts, professional rageaholics, racist disaffected conservatives, and some members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web on the same payroll will be far more malevolent than Intercept owner Pierre Omidyar, who has no shortage of his own peculiar investments and unacknowledged political commitments. Some possibilities come to mind—perhaps a Trump-friendly tech mogul notorious for killing a genuinely free-thinking publication—but one hesitates to summon the demon by naming it.
Beyond how grim it all looks, it’s rather sad. Greenwald has done groundbreaking reporting on NSA surveillance and Brazilian corruption. He’s risked jail to report necessary truths. He’s correct that much of the media is, in one form or another, corrupt—occupying a narrow Overton window, funded by special interests, willing to launder the reputations of awful people like Greenwald’s bête noire David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter who is comfortably ensconced at The Atlantic. Cable news is irredeemable. A great deal of digital media is sponsored content, ad fraud, and content farms propping up more prestigious investigative units or simply pumping money into the pockets of venal corporate owners. Individual journalists, when they aren’t forced to seek an exit from an industry in terminal decline, are left to chase readers and clout on Twitter. There’s plenty to mock, as Greenwald spends hours doing each day. Whether his ornery brand of media criticism—often divorced from the material and labor conditions afflicting the profession—is the best use of his time and influence is apparently not up for question.
Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor in chief, summed up the situation well, writing in a response to Greenwald’s resignation: “We have the greatest respect for the journalist Glenn Greenwald used to be, and we remain proud of much of the work we did with him over the past six years. It is Glenn who has strayed from his original journalistic roots, not The Intercept.”
Bombast and ego have always been at the heart of Greenwald’s writing. But like many star journalists left to marinate in their own juices for too long, he’s become an asshole who equates being edited with the targeted suppression of his righteous beliefs. Whatever he does next will be interesting, at least at first, but absent a Snowden-level leak entrusted to him, his work is unlikely to be essential. That’s not all for the worse. With excellent reporting on militarism, political corruption, environmental issues, and much else, The Intercept has matured into an important publication producing exactly the kind of broadly adversarial journalism Greenwald has always sought. Its many fine journalists will be better off when they are out of the founder’s long shadow. Greenwald himself may not be.