Glenn Greenwald on the “adversarial force” of a free press

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Greenwald (Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Greenwald (Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Should journalists keep quiet as Donald Trump continues “stoking the ugliest impulses” of the electorate? Not if Glenn Greenwald has anything to do with it. Best known for his reporting on whistleblower Edward Snowden, Greenwald has had enough of reporters who hide behind what he sees as a false front of objectivity and impartiality. In a recent appearance on our podcast The Pub, Greenwald discussed the limitations of this model with host Adam Ragusea. He began by discussing the case of NPR commentator Cokie Roberts, who drew attention for a column in which she argued that Republicans should derail Trump’s candidacy.

Glenn Greenwald: Cokie Roberts wrote a column that made an argument that I think is on a huge number of people’s minds, which is the idea that Donald Trump presents a very unique and in some senses unprecedented political threat as a result of the things he’s doing and saying in his campaign. Her doing that seemed to create a lot of controversy and tension inside NPR. Specifically, there was this sense among NPR executives and on-air personalities that what she did was somehow a violation of journalistic duty or intention with what a journalist ought to be doing because it constituted the expressing of an opinion.

To me, I look at how journalism has been used throughout history. I look at some of the most famous cases where the most revered journalists, like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, sort of had the defining moment of their career standing up against something they perceived to be a serious threat — in the case of Murrow, McCarthyism, and in the case of Cronkite, the Vietnam War. I find it really disturbing that there’s this sense that journalists are supposed to in every case pretend that they have no opinions or suppress those opinions, and pretend that they’re sort of machines or computers in how they look at the world.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Just to clarify, it was the position of NPR administration not that Cokie should not have said what she said; it was their position that they needed to do a better job of making it clear to the listener that Cokie Roberts’s role at NPR was that of a commentator, not just your typical reporter who may or may not be expected to play it straight.

Greenwald: Right, that’s true, although they did say — the memo from the editorial vice president specifically said — that people on staff would not be able to do that who are in a reporting role. And then Morning Edition host David Greene said:

David Greene, in clip: Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. I mean, can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you sort of come on and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?

Cokie Roberts: Yes, I can blame you for being a little disappointed because I think it is a different role. If I were doing it in your role, you should be disappointed …

Greenwald: So he seemed to actually think that what she did was at least questionable, notwithstanding the capacity in which she works.

Current: But people out there have no shortage of voices in their ears telling them “Vote for this guy” or “Don’t vote for that guy.” Why do you think that audiences are served by the umpires taking sides in the in the game where they’re trying to call the plays?

Greenwald: Again, I would look to the incredible impact that Walter Cronkite had in terms of how the nation viewed the Vietnam War. The war didn’t instantly end, but it was certainly a turning point that someone so authoritative and so respected spoke out against it. And, definitely, Murrow using his nightly news broadcast to denounce the excesses of McCarthyism —

Current: Murrow’s a really great example, but basically Cronkite went on a reporting trip and, based upon his findings, came to an objective conclusion, which was that the United States was losing the war. That’s analysis.

Greenwald: But it was very opinionated. If you look at what he actually said, it was interpreted as — and I think only fairly understood — as being a call for the war to end. It was certainly viewed in that context, and in fact he was widely criticized when he did it for stepping outside of the news role and instead becoming some sort of opinionator or commentator or somebody who could no longer be trusted to be objective.

This line that you’re drawing is a lot blurrier than it is clear. For example, if you were to say Donald Trump is a racist, or that the arguments that he’s making are racist or designed to appeal to racist impulses, is that an opinion or is that just an objective observation? It’s difficult to strongly classify it in an absolute sense as being one or the other, and I think that illustrates the point, which is, we don’t see the world that way. We don’t view the world in these absolutist, objective terms; we’re not capable of that, and everything we say in terms of observation is bound up in subjective assumptions and subjective perspectives.

Current: So is it your position that all reporters at NPR should be free to say, “I’m voting for this person,” “I’m voting for that person,” that there’s no barriers whatsoever to what they should say?

Greenwald: I think that NPR would be a lot more trustworthy, a lot more interesting and a lot more honest if their journalists acknowledged openly what their subjective assumptions and viewpoints and desired outcomes about the world were, rather than concealing them or pretending that they float above them. I think that this voice that people at NPR and PBS and CNN are required to assume, where they’re supposed to display this kind of nonhuman neutrality about the world in which they’re reporting, is a deceitful, artificial one. It’s much better to have viewers and readers know the perspective from which people are reporting, rather than trying to deceive them into believing that there are none.

Current: When you wrote a piece for The Intercept about this Cokie Roberts incident, you harkened back to NPR’s rather controversial usage of the terms “rough interrogation” and “enhanced interrogation.”

Greenwald: Yeah, and this to me is one of the best examples for illustrating what I think. The Bush administration, as everybody knows, adopted interrogation techniques which, whether you’re for them or against them, have long been regarded — for many decades, by every nation in the world, including the United States — as being torture. In fact, the U.S. prosecuted people from other countries for using these techniques under international laws of war criminals and torturers. They even prosecuted members of the police department for using some of these techniques as torture, and every major media outlet literally called it torture when these same techniques that the Bush administration adopted were used by adversary governments.

Suddenly, when the Bush administration adopted it, they redefined these techniques and said, “No, this isn’t actually torture. We’re going to create a new euphemism for it, which is ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’” And rather than just continue to describe what they actually have always been and are still regarded as, which is torture, most major media outlets that believe in this precept of objectivity — NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post — instead adopted the government’s euphemism for it and justified it by saying, “There’s a debate about these techniques, about whether they constitute torture, and it’s not for us to take sides in that debate. We’re not here to resolve the debate in favor of the people who want to say this is torture. We’re supposed to be neutral and objective, and so we’re going to change our language at the government’s behest lest we be accused of siding against them.” That’s how they can actually operate to mislead and deceive and turn journalists into aiders and abettors, if not outright disseminators, of propaganda, which is the opposite of what the role should be.

Current: I would absolutely agree that NPR in particular, that their invocation of the term “enhanced interrogation” or “rough interrogation,” that their usages often lack context. At the very least you need to say, “what the government calls ‘enhanced interrogation’” or “so-called enhanced interrogation.” In fact, they got a lot better about that as criticism from people like you came on them.

But I do see a bit of their point in the sense that when you’re talking about the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation technique program,” it’s a pretty big umbrella that encompasses a lot of different techniques, some of them unquestionably constituting torture — any dictionary definition of that word, any legal definition of that word, yes, absolutely, they were tortured.

But there’s some other things that maybe weren’t torture. There is a blurry line between rough interrogation and torture and, especially if you just look at the U.S. federal statute on it, describes torture as the infliction of severe physical or emotional pain. “Severe” is a subjective term. What constitutes severe? Is hooding severe, putting someone in a hood and depriving them of their sight for a few minutes? I don’t know. It seems to me like there was an actual debate over legitimate things that were legitimately subjective going on, and it made sense for NPR as an organization to not collectively take a side in that. How do you see it differently?

Greenwald: First of all, let’s take the concession that you made, or at least the acknowledgement with part of what I said, which is that, yes, there were some techniques that fall into this gray zone, that legitimately fall into ambiguity about whether they constitute torture.

But there were also techniques that the Bush administration officials used — not rogue members of the CIA or military — but that the Bush administration ordered be implemented that indisputably and undeniably constituted torture under a clear body of international law, under the usage of the term by the U.S. government and by these media outlets. So the fact that the U.S. government is officially using torture, which is a war crime under treaties that we’ve signed, is an extremely important revelation for the public to understand.

So had NPR adopted an editorial policy that said, “We’re only going to use the term ‘torture’ to describe what the Bush administration is doing in those cases where it really clearly is torture, and then in the gray zone we’re going to indicate that it’s subject to debate,” I would have had no problem with what they did. But that’s not what they did. They instead adopted an absolute bar on the use of the word ”torture” by their reporters — just like the New York Times and the Washington Post and others did — even in those cases where there was no ambiguity. They justified it, when they responded to my criticism and criticism from others, on the grounds that they don’t see it as their role to take sides in what they said was a debate as a result of the Bush administration’s denials.

This, to me, is really shocking. If you as a journalist are saying you are never going to contradict what the government is saying, that once the Bush administration says this isn’t torture, you are then basically barred journalistically from saying that it is …

Current: They’re not saying that they’re not going to report it; they’re simply saying, we will report facts and allow our audience to determine whether or not they think this constitutes torture or something immoral or not.

Greenwald: But it is a fact that these techniques are torture. That is a fact. The fact that the government denied this fact doesn’t make it any less of a fact. And that doesn’t mean that you say, “Well, I’m bound now not to call it a fact because the government says it’s not a fact.”

If you look, for example, at what the New York Times did once George Bush left office and President Obama was inaugurated, and the official position of the Obama administration became some of these techniques are in fact torture, the New York Times said, “OK, now we’re going to start to call it torture.” And they editorially now have changed their position, and they do call these techniques torture as part of their reporting. Their argument is, “Now that the U.S. government itself is acknowledging that these techniques are torture, there’s no longer a justification for us to refrain from using that word.”

The part that I find extremely disturbing is that this fetishizing of objectivity has become so extreme that it essentially means that if two sides take different positions, journalists can never resolve that dispute, because to do so is to take sides. That’s what I think is so menacing, and the torture debate is a perfect example.

Current: Why do you want journalists to resolve disputes? There are other people, there are activists, there are politicians, people there to actually connect the dots and say, “Here’s the course of action that we should take, given the set of facts.” The function of the media is to provide that set of facts and to disseminate that set of facts.

Greenwald: So let’s say that the government is making a claim that is completely unsustainable and false, like “We don’t torture.” The media actually has two options, roughly speaking. They can say, “We’re not going to take a side, and we’re not going to say whether or not what the government is saying is false, because that’s not our role. We have to remain neutral and objective, and we can report that national law has in the past called these things torture, but we’re not going to say whether or not the government’s claims are really false.”

Or the media can say, “Our role is to check on the government, and when the government is doing something dangerous, historically the role of journalism, the reason why a free press is protected, is for us to stand up and blow the whistle and say, ‘No, what you’re saying is false, what you’re saying is contrary to the whole body of evidence, what you’re doing is dangerous.’”

If you adopt that first line of reasoning, that all we’re here to do is just sort of summarize what each side says, I don’t see what the purpose of journalism is. All you’re really doing is just summarizing, in a way a stenographer would, what other people are saying. That’s how journalism has never functioned in the United States until very recently.

Current: So it is your argument that the modern — I mean it’s not your argument; it’s a factual truth — that the modern impartiality model as we know it is a relatively new thing. I don’t think that the yellow journalism era that preceded it is necessarily anything to be celebrated in and of itself. I tend to agree with you, Glenn, on most of these issues, but do you know who Daniel Hallin is?

Greenwald: I don’t.

Current: He’s the media scholar who coined the phrase “sphere of consensus” to describe how mainstream media conceives of what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. I interviewed him on this show not too long ago, and I asked him, “What do you want?” because sphere of consensus is not a prescriptive model; he’s a communications scholar, not a journalism professor. “Do you want journalists to be doing this sphere of consensus model, or do you want something else?”

And what he said to me was that he thinks that the most functional media environments in the world are ones that have a diversity of lots of different kinds of players — some players who play it straight, some players who don’t play it straight. That’s really informed my thinking. You and I sparred on Twitter in the past about when CNN cracked down on a congressional reporter who took a position on a bill. I was sort of defending CNN because I think that it makes sense for at least some people in an organization … like, if you’re a reporter on the Hill, it’s in your strategic interest — it’s in the strategic interest of the organization that you serve — to play it straight so that you don’t alienate any of your sources. And then other people in the journalistic ecosystem, other people further up the food chain, can say, “Wow, that bill is atrocious” or “Wow, that bill isn’t atrocious.” Why is that not an appropriate model to pursue?

Greenwald: I don’t actually think there’s one model of journalism. I would never call my view of journalism or any view of journalism the model of journalism. There are lots of journalists who believe in this kind of objectivity religion who I think do really good reporting. They don’t ever really explicitly express an opinion, although, like I said, I think all journalists, even ones who are trying not to, have embedded within everything they’re saying very subjective opinions, even if they’re pretending that they don’t.

But I’m not saying that every single journalist should practice journalism the way that I do. I’m not saying that every journalist should be standing up every day and articulating their opinions or viewpoints as the only means of doing journalism. The problem is that, overwhelmingly, the largest and most influential media institutions — CNN, all of the network news broadcasts, the largest newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, NPR, PBS — have adopted this very homogenized model that says that not only are you not to express opinions, but that you will actually be fired if you do. You will be prohibited from doing so.

And so there is this one dominant model, unfortunately; we don’t have a mix of different ways of doing things. By and large, the Internet has diversified how journalism is done in some cases, but ultimately the problem is that a handful of news outlets that overwhelmingly are shaping how people think have adopted the singular model that I think renders journalism pretty impotent.

The other point I just want to make is — and I think this is really critical, even if you’re somebody who believes that in general a journalist should follow this recent corporatized model of objectivity. Walter Cronkite certainly believed in that. If he were here, and he has been involved in discussions like this, he would say, “Absolutely, the duty of a journalist is to play it straight.”

Even for people who think that, there have to be moments in the republic when something becomes so menacing, so extreme, so threatening, so out of our civic norms that everybody, including journalists, has a duty to step up and stand up to it and confront it and denounce it. For Murrow that was McCarthyism. For Cronkite that was the Vietnam War and then the false claims the government was making about it. And it’d be very hard to make the case that the passions and sentiments that Donald Trump has been deliberately agitating don’t fall into that case. This is not just like a normal, garden-variety political moment. This is something that — even if you believe in general in those standards of neutrality — is a situation that makes a very strong case that they ought to be suspended.

Current: So if you acknowledge that the conventional impartiality model might have some legitimate role to play in the broader news ecosystem, your criticism is just that it’s far too pervasive and far too dominant. If you’re acknowledging that it does have a legitimate role to play, would it not then be easy to conclude that if anybody is going to follow the impartiality model, it should be the news organization that is supported by taxpayers’ dollars that has a special obligation to fully represent the views of all of the people they take money from?

Greenwald: I’m not saying that I think that it is a legitimate or viable model to adopt; what I’m really saying is that the fact that somebody has adopted this model of objectivity doesn’t preclude that they also do good reporting. It’s not that I ever think it’s a good idea to adopt this model because I think the model itself is misleading and artificial and deceitful. I’m just saying it’s not mutually exclusive with doing good reporting. I don’t think that in order to do good reporting, necessarily in every case you have to stand up and express your opinion; that’s really more than what I’m saying. But I think there’s a serious danger to this model, and even when you have publicly funded media — and you can question whether or not publicly funded media is a good idea precisely because of what you’re raising — but objectivity in journalism can be very dangerous if what it operates to do is to remain neutral about false claims and dangerous behavior. Because that can serve to legitimize those things or to justify them or to obscure to your viewers and readers what actually is taking place.

And that’s why I say the torture example is so good, because what is more a violation of a journalistic duty than to use a government euphemism that is designed from the inception to obscure what the government is doing rather than to illuminate what the government is doing. And if journalists are helping the government obscure what it’s doing rather than illuminating what they’re doing, I think it’s very hard to say that that is a form of legitimate journalism.

Current: There is this infamous and I think kind of awesome exchange that occurred between you and NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston in 2010. You were on a panel discussion, Dina was in the audience. She gets up and she asks a “question” in which she asserts that you have been wrong in some of the facts that you have put out over the course of the panel discussion, and she says that the “Underwear Bomber” Abdulmutallab was in fact trained, or said that he was trained, by Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged al Qaeda leader. And then you shoot back at Dina with this — and let’s just listen to a little clip.

Current: And then of course what happened was a year after you guys had that exchange, the U.S. blew up al-Awlaki in a drone strike. Dina Temple-Raston’s work here is perhaps emblematic of what you have derisively described, Glenn, as “access journalism.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Greenwald: Sure, and you know it is true that I think it was a year later, as you said, that they killed al-Awlaki. At the time that we had that exchange, it was widely known that they were targeting for assassination a U.S. citizen who had not been indicted with any crime and had not been charged with any crime. What Dina was essentially saying was she was standing up and she was defending the U.S. government’s targeting of al-Awlaki by disputing my argument that there was no evidence presented to justify regarding him as a terrorist because he had never been tried, never been convicted. And she had essentially vouched for the U.S. government by saying, “Look, I’ve been shown evidence.” She then said, “I can’t tell you who showed it to me, and I can’t really even tell you what that evidence is.” I think she ultimately said that it was a part of an affidavit from Abdulmutallab.

As a lawyer, the idea of just using a tiny excerpt of an affidavit is incredibly irresponsible. No court would allow that, let alone as a journalist to use it to defend the killing of an American citizen with no due process.

And so to me what that really represented was the way in which journalists are so easily caught, that someone in the intelligence agency kind of whispered in her ear and showed her some secret part of a document that he wanted her to see so that she would then go forth and basically be the government spokesperson saying, “Oh, I’m here to assure you that you need not worry about targeting your fellow citizen because the government has in its possession things that prove he’s a terrorist. I can’t tell you who has it, I can’t really tell you much about what it is, but I’m here to just tell you: Believe me. It exists because they showed it to me.” She had accused me in her question of not doing what I think she called “real national security reporting.” And to me, what she was saying she had just done was the opposite of real reporting. She was essentially being used by the government to be a spokesperson under the guise of journalism.

I don’t mean to single her out at all; I think it’s a pretty common way that journalists end up working with the government because it benefits them in all sorts of ways.

Current: But again, going back to my premise that journalism happens in an ecosystem, that individual acts of journalism don’t have to fill out the entire picture, what matters is the picture that we get from the news ecosystem as a whole: Is there not a value in having some people, some players in that ecosystem, working on this access model, doing things that are maybe a little bit icky so we can know things that we otherwise wouldn’t know? And then other people in the ecosystem, like you, Glenn, at The Intercept, can swoop in and say, “Well, here’s some of the other side of the story.” What’s wrong with that?

Greenwald: I think you have to go back to the first principle of what journalism is. I realize people have different perspectives on it, but to me the way societies get organized is that a small group of people end up wielding political power, economic power, cultural power. And so the question becomes — and this was of course a question that preoccupied the founders, who had just waged a war to liberate themselves from a very powerful entity that abused that power because it had no checks — how do you provide accountability? How do you provide limits? How do you provide some pushback against those people wielding power? And one of their answers was a free press.

That’s what journalism is intended to do; it’s to be an adversarial force against those people in power, to prevent them from abusing it. And so the model of journalism that says, “We’re going to get close to government. We’re going to disseminate the information that it wants us to disseminate” — I suppose in some cases there can be some ancillary benefit because sometimes, even though it’s the government wanting you to know this stuff, the stuff they want you to know can actually be true, or it can be helpful to know what they want us to know.

But in general, I think that that model is more government propaganda than actual journalism. And it really serves to amplify government messages and to bolster government power, rather than scrutinize government messages and serve as a check on government power. To me it’s really the antithesis of what journalism in its most noble and effective and important form is intended to achieve.

Current: So you’ve got leaders of NPR and several other public media organizations listening to you right now. Closing thought: What is your message to them? What do you want from them?

Greenwald: I’d like NPR journalists to be freed, to be liberated, to speak like normal human beings. I worked at First Look Media for a while with Matt Taibbi, and this story that Matt told really resonated with me on this issue. He talked about how when he was growing up, his uncle and a couple of other relatives and all of their friends were journalists. And they would get together and have these really fascinating, illuminating discussions about politics where they would curse, and they would express views, and they would be really blunt about the things that they thought, and it was super-fascinating and super-engaging. But then you would go read the next day and it would be drained of all of that vitality and passion. It would just be in this kind of newspaper-speak that was designed to corporatize the language and make it as inoffensive as possible. That to me is the model that NPR has done to itself, which is to make it just as kind of boring and impotent as it can possibly be by stripping it of anything controversial. To me, the driving force of NPR is to avoid in any way being controversial or offending anybody at any time.

Current: But the model that you’re advancing is one that is inevitably going to alienate a lot of people and further divide the audience into silos in which they are never exposed to things that challenge their worldview.

Greenwald: Listen to what you just said! If you’re afraid of offending and alienating people, how can you ever present things to them that will challenge their worldview? That’s the whole point: If you’re afraid of alienating people, you won’t be challenging their worldview. All you’re going to be doing is saying, “Mitch McConnell today said this, and Harry Reid today said this. Our time is up and we’re going to have to leave it there.” Because you’re so afraid of offending anybody, you don’t end up challenging their worldview.

Current: I’m saying that there’s got to be a middle course that can be struck. Look at your own readership, Glenn, at The Intercept: What percentage of your readership is people who are challenged by the things you’re putting out there versus fanboys who lap up everything you say, fanboys who when I in the slightest bit criticize anything you say or do on Twitter, my fucking feed is filled with these little fanboys, your acolytes, like jumping all over my ass for days?

Greenwald: So there you go; that was to me a good passionate outburst, and I think the reason why is because you liberated yourself from this sort of journalistic-speak.

The reality is that I’ve always cultivated a readership that’s really diverse. I would say a third of my readership are liberals, a third are libertarians and a third are just sort of nonpartisan independent, just people who are angry or critical about the world. And if you check the comment section after anything that I write, or my email inbox, you’ll see that a huge portion of the people who read the stuff we’re reporting are angered by it and disagree with it, and maybe sometimes they support it and sometimes they’re really furious by it.

What I think valuable journalism is about is going out into the world and shining a light on the things that you think need a light and saying the things you think need to be said without concern for who’s alienated or offended. I think that has been what The Intercept has done, and I think that’s what all good journalists do.

  • Brad Deltan

    I often think about how journalists during the Vietnam War would just go out in the bush to find stories. Sometimes they’d tag along with a squad of soldiers, sometimes not. And the result was plain to see: they reported back to America the atrocities being done to…and by…our troops.

    Clearly the military learned that lesson with the First Gulf War in the early 90’s, where our own military actively blocked journalists from independently covering the war, and required that they become “embedded” with specific squadrons. Thus guaranteeing that the journos, for the most part, saw and heard only what the Pentagon wanted them to see and hear. And also ensuring that the journos formed an interpersonal bond with the soldiers, reducing their objectivity in covering them.

  • Jeff_Barge

    Reminds me of that old journalism saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Kind of like Megyn Kelly, I guess.