Don’t ever refer to Glenn Greenwald as “blogger Glenn Greenwald.” Whenever some poor bastard in the traditional press describes him as such, he strenuously objects in classic Greenwaldian fashion, usually involving the word “drooling” and 5,000 others, give or take. He’s a journalist, dammit, not a blogger. And don’t you forget it, mister. In fact, in his most recent post for The Intercept, Greenwald bends over backwards to make sure everyone knows he’s a Journalist Doing Journalism. Also, journalist. Did I mention journalism?
But the way he described The Intercept‘s view of journalism in a new profile published in The Guardian, he inadvertently makes it sound like it’s just another blog — with, of course, a really juicy goody bag of source material courtesy of Edward Snowden.
I’ll come back to that presently. But first, I’d like to underscore that my gripe with Greenwald, contra-Charlie Pierce, has nothing to do with what I think of him personally. Frankly, in the one or two non-political chats I’ve had with Greenwald over Twitter and email, he’s seemed nice enough. That notwithstanding, I think Greenwald is a terrible journalist/blogger — whatever you choose to call him — and I believe he’s seriously misled and misinformed thousands if not millions of readers via his too-clever redefinition of what he considers to be “doing journalism.” Clearly, many of the people who have read Greenwald over the past year have been unaware of his other agenda beyond attacking the National Security Agency and its counterparts.
Since the advent of the written word, people have generally believed what they read, and so it goes with Greenwald’s reporting. Couple that with misleading headlines, buried ledes and hyperbolic leaps of logic, Greenwald has achieved mostly what he set out to do: hook the general public into believing that NSA is in our electronic devices watching our every move and collecting our every thought. Even though it’s, you know, not doing that.
But to me and to a handful of others, this story is much more than about what NSA is up to. Greenwald and his colleagues at The Intercept, The Guardian and even NBC News are zealously abandoning the basic and quite important rules of journalism, mainly because operating according to those rules would dampen the dramatic impact of their reporting.
In The Guardian yesterday, Greenwald announced that there won’t be any editors approving or rejecting articles for The Intercept:
“We want to avoid this hierarchical, top-down structure where editors are bosses and obstacles to being published,” Greenwald explains. “We are trying to make it much more collaborative. Our journalists have a variety of tools to make their writing better and one of them is the editor. We also want journalists to help to hire editors.”
Only Greenwald would demonize the notion of critical editors. It’s clear from this remark that not only will there never be a “Red Team” at The Intercept tasked with improving stories by aggressively questioning the facts within, but there won’t even be editorial “obstacles?” How convenient. How irresponsible.
One of the things that doomed Occupy Wall Street was its total lack of hierarchical leadership. It needed someone to be the final authority over what, in the case of Occupy, its message was. Consequently it was a jumbled, leaderless mess without priorities, a message and no real legislative agenda.
Likewise, at The Intercept, there won’t be anyone on staff to read Greenwald’s material, no one to tell him: “You don’t have it.” A man who only published his first hard news story last June won’t have a senior editor evaluating the accuracy of his reporting or whether the content of his articles is in the public interest. Needless to say, if there’s anyone who needs an adversarial editor it’s The Intercept, especially given the sensitivity of the material its writers are working with.
It’s also important to note that the mere existence of editors doesn’t mean there’s responsible editing going on. As we’ve witnessed most recently, for example, with Luke Harding’s Snowden book published by The Guardian, the editors there have allowed all sorts of crap to go public that many editors never would’ve have allowed. I’ve worked as a news editor for a reasonable chunk of my career and there’s no way I would’ve green-lit one of my writers to publish that an NSA agent might’ve been deleting his book as he typed it, the same goes for the murky weirdness of the GCHQ computer smash-up story.
Put another way: having editors doesn’t always mean they’re effective bulwarks against bad reporting. But they should be. Good, responsible ones are.
The rules, including the existence of editors, are necessary for many reasons, beginning with ethics and accuracy. They weren’t established to undermine and thwart Greenwald’s journalism. Indeed, rules were established to make Greenwald’s journalism better.
Instead, Greenwald has proudly boasted that he’s “completely unrestrained” by the rules of journalism, while vigorously embracing the job title of a journalist. But no, he doesn’t get to have it both ways. A scientist doesn’t get to reject the scientific method and still be regarded as a scientist. Part of being a journalist, as Chez Pazienza routinely notes, is to challenge your theories, to weed out confirmation bias and to try like hell to disprove your ideas as thoroughly as you attempt to prove them. A real editor should enforce this — a real journalist should embrace it.
And if you don’t want to operate within these parameters, sorry, you’re just a blogger.