The NSA leak story isn’t just another example of digital media outmuscling traditional media, it’s one more example of the growing primacy of advocacy journalism.
Forty years ago, the leakers of Pentagon Papers and the crimes and cover-up of Watergate took their information to reporters at the leading news organizations of the day. Daniel Ellsberg handed the Pentagon Papers to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. Deep Throat — FBI associate director W. Mark Felt — whispered in a parking garage to Bob Woodward from The Washington Post.
Sheehan and Woodward, while covering those stories, practiced what I would call disinterested journalism (objective journalism is too loaded and too imprecise a phrase): They wanted to report facts without passing judgment in print on those facts. Ellsberg and Felt wanted the facts to come out, so they gave information to reporters and not editorial writers, political parties or advocacy groups.
Advocacy journalism hasn't routed disinterested journalism yet, but it’s gaining ground.
The most significant leakers of this decade, however, didn’t go to here-are-the-facts reporters like Sheehan and Woodward, they went to online advocacy journalists. Army PFC Bradley Manning went to Julian Assange and his website Wikileaks. Edward Snowden went to authors and bloggers who had written extensively about the security state: Glenn Greenwald, a blogger for The Guardian, and Barton Gellman, an editor at large and “CounterSpy” blogger at Time.
Gellman, who is now an author in residence at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, worked as a reporter at The Washington Post for 21 years and won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 2002 for coverage of the war on terrorism and another in 2008 for coverage of the vice presidency of Dick Cheney. Journalists who talked to Snowden when he was hiding out in Hong Kong last week reported that he was passing the time reading Gellman’s book “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.”
The story Gellman finally wrote, after a peculiar three-week conversation with Snowden, appeared in the Post on June 6, a day after Greenwald’s first story appeared in The Guardian. Gellman shared a byline with documentary filmmaker and activist Laura Poitras, whom Snowden had also contacted.
That Greenwald, a lawyer by training, should break such a major story led The New York Times to explain to its readers who the heck the guy is:
Being at the center of a debate is a comfortable place for Mr. Greenwald, 46, who came to mainstream journalism through his own blog, which he started in 2005. Before that he was a lawyer, including working 18 months at the high-powered New York firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where he represented large corporate clients.
“I approach my journalism as a litigator,” he said. “People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.”
Greenwald blogs on a wide range of topics but always returns to civil liberties, government secrecy and security issues. His work defies any partisan categorization, and he resents any effort to associate him with a political party. He is smart, prolific, strident and prone to hyperbole.
Greenwald told NPR’s Morning Edition on June 7 that the NSA “is currently devoted to the objective of creating a worldwide surveillance net that allows it to monitor what all human beings are doing and how they’re behaving and interacting with one another.”
One recurring theme in his writing is his feverish contempt for most journalism and most journalists. In October of last year, in The Guardian, he summed up his disdain for the notion of neutral journalism, again putting those fumigating words to work, in the blog post headlined “Faux objectivity of journalists.”
At best, “objectivity” in this world of journalists usually means nothing more than: the absence of obvious and intended favoritism toward either of the two major political parties. As long as a journalist treats Democrats and Republicans more or less equally, they will be hailed – and will hail themselves – as “objective journalists”.
These establishment journalists are creatures of the DC and corporate culture in which they spend their careers, and thus absorb and then regurgitate all of the assumptions of that culture. That may be inevitable, but having everyone indulge the ludicrous fantasy that they are “objective” and “neutral” most certainly is not.
What’s interesting and essential to remember, though, is that when The Guardian and The Post revealed the NSA’s spying programs, they did it with impartial, fact-based stories.
This is not a new idea — it’s the stuff of Journalism 101 lectures going back at least 35 years to the publication of Herbert Gans’ “Deciding What’s News” — and the standard response is that journalists like Greenwald just “absorb and then regurgitate all of the assumptions” of a different culture.
Snowden and Manning came of age in an era when advocacy journalism reached more people more easily that ever before, and in an era where advocacy journalism has become a primary source for many. What’s interesting and essential to remember, though, is that when The Guardian and The Post revealed the NSA’s spying programs, they did it with impartial, fact-based stories. Advocacy journalism hasn't routed disinterested journalism yet, but it’s gaining ground.
This program aired on June 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.