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Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and the Dangers of Activist Journalism

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Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and the Dangers of Activist Journalism

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Photo courtesy Getty Images

The other day I was listening to a WNYC interview with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who made Edward Snowden a household name and government surveillance the story of the summer. Near the end of the show a caller asked the following: If terrorists use the Internet to plan their attacks, doesn't the government need to monitor the web in order to thwart such attacks?

Greenwald pointed to recent polls indicating that people are now more worried about government snooping than terrorism. He argued that both the Bush and Obama administrations had used the fear of terrorism to justify increased government surveillance. Then he said this:

"The reality is there have always been bad guys. Before terrorism there was communism. They used telephone lines and the like to plot all sorts of things against the United States. But we always had constraints on what the government could do in terms of surveillance and we were able to defend ourselves perfectly fine."

Think about that phrase for a moment, if you will - "We were able to defend ourselves perfectly fine." If that's true, then what exactly happened on that warm September day a dozen years ago when 3,000 people were killed in the space of a few hours? Were we able to defend ourselves then? That statement, an astonishing oversight on Greenwald's part, is something I'll return to presently.

There's been a lot of talk, in news media circles at least, about whether Greenwald represents a new breed of reporter, one who wears his passions and preconceptions on his sleeve. He's made his feelings about government snooping, among other things, very clear, so is he a journalist or activist?

The answer, say many, is both. The notion of a reporter an an objective chronicler of events is hopelessly outdated, some pundits claim, and Greenwald's straddling of both news and opinion is a more appropriate model of journalism for our jaded era. Better that reporters declare their opinions openly, pundits say, so that we can judge their work in the proper context.

Of course, the blending of objectivity and opinion is nothing new. As NYU Professor Mitchell Stephens points out, "the whole notion that journalists should be 'objective' was the product of a relatively short -- 150-year-long -- and anomalous period in which it was possible to make a good business out of selling news, 'intelligence.'"

Stephens adds that "a significant percentage of the greatest works of American 'journalism' -- from Tom Paine's 'Common Sense' to Horace Greeley's 'Prayer of the Twenty Millions' to Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' - were works of opinion, buttressed with various forms of 'intelligence.' The presence of opinion in journalism -- in columns, blogs, tweets and Glenn Greenwald's investigations -- needs no apology."

Greenwald himself has made a similar point. In a 2012 column on ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's performance as moderator of the vice presidential debate, he writes that "for establishment journalists like Raddatz, 'objectivity' is the holy grail. In their minds, it is what distinguishes 'real reporters' from mere 'opinionists' and, worse, partisans. As they tell it, this objectivity means they traffic only in straight facts, unvarnished by ideology or agenda."

Greenwald adds:

"The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective."

Fair enough. But reporters, if nothing else, should at least periodically question their own assumptions, especially those that involve the beats they cover. On the other hand, activists - by definition people whose strong convictions drive them to action - aren't known for this kind of introspection, and in this vein Greenwald has been truculent and thin-skinned when challenged even slightly about his National Security Agency stories. David Carr of The New York Times writes that Greenwald "has been everywhere on television taking on his critics, which seems more like a campaign than a discussion of the story he covered."

Carr adds:

"I do think that activism -- which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery -- can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored."

It's those unexplored cracks that worry me. When Greenwald says "we were able to defend ourselves perfectly fine," he sounds like someone who almost manages to overlook the Sept. 11 attacks, perhaps because he doesn't believe they were that important. Indeed, he has been quoted as saying the 9/11 attacks were "very minimal in scope compared to the level of violence that we (the U.S.) bring to the world and have been bringing to the world for decades..."

Those are Greenwald's beliefs, and if he is going to be open about them then we have every right to evaluate his work in light of those convictions.

Let me be clear: I'm not an expert on the NSA, and I'm not quite sure yet where I come down in the complicated calculus that weighs security vs. civil liberties. I'm concerned about government surveillance of the Internet, but I feel at least as strongly that the government must do what it can to thwart another terrorist attack. And it's my view that Greenwald's crusade against NSA surveillance (and yes, it is a crusade) comes easily to him because he vastly underestimates the impact of 9/11, and the likelihood of it happening again.

Perhaps I digress. The focus of this site is journalism, after all, and as far as that goes it's clear that in the wild and woolly world of digital news, the activist-journalist model is one that's here to stay. Glenn Greenwald may have many unexplored cracks in his thinking, but there are more of his kind to come.

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