On Sunday the New York Times published a truly fascinating back-and-forth between the paper’s former executive editor, Bill Keller, and Glenn Greenwald. It’s essentially a conversation — at times gracious, at times contentious, but always illuminating — about the future of journalism.
You all know how I feel about Greenwald’s journalism, and it should be said that my issue is solely with the way Greenwald goes about his adversarial, activist reporting — not adversarial, activist reporting in and of itself. And while Greenwald indeed has some really good things to say about where the modern press has gone wrong and what kind of attitude is needed to fix it, it’s difficult to put so much of his past behavior, both personally and professionally, out of your mind as you read the op-ed.
Less than a month ago, in fact, Greenwald lashed out at Keller personally on Twitter. This came after it was revealed in an interview with him in the New Yorker that Keller had asked exactly the kind of question and made exactly the kind of statement we’ve said here at Banter many times: that if the NSA/Snowden story had been done by a true shoe-leather reporter rather than Glenn Greenwald, it would’ve been airtight and most of the problems we’ve seen with it never would’ve happened:
“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.”
Simple — and as it turns out, correct. You make sure the potentially seismic story isn’t reported by someone with no experience doing truly in-depth investigative journalism. And you definitely don’t let the person have it whose widely known agenda and reputation for downplaying or jettisoning contradictory facts might taint it right out of the gate.
Greenwald’s response to Keller’s comment was to get angry and go on the attack:
Bill Keller is the strangest person to use as a journalism expert given that he’s responsible for one of the worst journalistic disgraces of the last decade at least: suppressing the Risen/Lichtblau NSA story for a full 15 months – through Bush’s reelection – because the Bush White House told him to conceal it, and **then finally publishing it only because Risen was about to break the story in his book and the NYT did not want to get scooped by their own reporter on a story they were suppressing***.
If you have *that in your past, it’s probably best not to sit in judgment on how best to do journalism.
Greenwald’s version of the events described above, predictably, implies wrongdoing without actually providing any proof and offers a highly reductive view of the reality of what happened. It’s the classic Greenwaldian reaction to criticism.
Back to the Times op-ed. It really is interesting stuff, regardless of what you think of either man involved in the conversation, since it covers one of the most essential debates in journalism: whether it’s best for a journalist to keep his or her biases in check and hidden from the public eye or whether this is a fool’s errand. Greenwald’s point that showing your hand when it comes to your beliefs can be a good thing for a journalist’s credibility is a fair one, and it’s one I’ve made before. But Keller’s argument that a desire to be unbiased is what leads news people to consider all the evidence in a story and to try to present it only as is, without slanting it in one direction or another, is spot-on. As I’ve said quite a few times, this is Greenwald’s biggest problem: he refuses to test his hypotheses; he simply discounts, dismisses, or figures out a way to rationalize around whatever facts happen to be inconvenient.
Keller holds off on hammering him with this until the very last exchange in their back-and-forth. That’s when he lets him have it:
You insist that “all journalism has a point of view and a set of interests it advances, even if efforts are made to conceal it.” And therefore there’s no point in attempting to be impartial. (I avoid the word “objective,” which suggests a mythical perfect state of truth.) Moreover, in case after case, where the mainstream media are involved, you are convinced that you, Glenn Greenwald, know what that controlling “set of interests” is. It’s never anything as innocent as a sense of fair play or a determination to let the reader decide; it must be some slavish fealty to powerful political forces.
I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced. (Exhibit A: Fox News.) And yes, writers are more likely to manipulate the evidence to support a declared point of view than one that is privately held, because pride is on the line…
I believe the need for impartial journalism is greater than it has ever been, because we live now in a world of affinity-based media, where citizens can and do construct echo chambers of their own beliefs. It is altogether too easy to feel “informed” without ever encountering information that challenges our prejudices.
A few volleys back, you pointed out that polls show the American public has a low opinion of the news media. You declared — based on no evidence I can find — that this declining esteem is a result of “glaring subservience to political power.” Really? It seems more plausible to me that the erosion of respect for American media — a category that includes everything from my paper to USA Today to Rush Limbaugh to The National Enquirer to If-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscasts — can be explained by the fact that so much of it is trivial, shallow, sensational, redundant and, yes, ideological and polemical.
Again, regardless of where you stand you should read the piece. It’s good stuff.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.