In a brand new New Yorker piece about The Guardian‘s role in the NSA story, as well as its broader place in digital media, Glenn Greenwald dropped the following quote regarding the tone and style of his articles on the topic:
“I wanted people in Washington to have fear in their hearts over how this journalism was going to be done, over the unpredictability of it,” he said. “Of the fact that we were going to be completely unrestrained by the unwritten rules of American journalism. The only reason we stopped after five days was that even our allies were saying, ‘Look, this is too much information. We can’t keep up with what you’re publishing.’ “
Unrestrained by the unwritten rules of journalism. I suppose that makes it “un-journalism.”
Anyone who’s read his hard news articles in particular noticed his abandonment of the basic rules of journalism. In fact, the main rule that was broken is noted in the article by The New York Times‘ Bill Keller, which is that an opinion writer should never have been assigned to report on a story of this magnitude in the first place:
“If one of our columnists had come up with a story of that magnitude—something that could not be contained in a column—we would have turned it over to the newsroom reporting staff,” Keller said. “And we would say in the story, ‘Nick Kristof obtained these documents.’ But we would not have Nick Kristof write the story for the front page of the New York Times.”
Of course this isn’t the only serious error The Guardian has made throughout the course of covering this beat. But the very fact that Greenwald has repeatedly expressed his vindictive, vengeful motivations (see also “fear in their hearts”) ought to convince anyone paying attention to treat everything he writes with a skeptical eye. Reporters are supposed to approach a story in a dry, dispassionate way. But I suppose that’s one of those “unwritten rules” that can be scrapped because it undermines Greenwald’s goal.
Indeed, this scornful rejection of the rules of journalism is part of The Guardian‘s “the-ends-justify-the-means” approach, inspired by Greenwald himself. For him, nothing is more important than to scold and shame the U.S. and U.K. governments, so anything goes. No retractions; no “when-in-doubt-leave-it-out” discretion; lots of misleading headlines and ledes — even the basic “who, what, when, where, why and how” rule is often ignored.
At the end of the day, if a publication abandons the rules of journalism, it’s nothing more than a supermarket tabloid. Or worse.