“Is Glenn Greenwald the future of news?”
Reading that headline in The New York Times, I felt just like Obi-Wan Kenobi at the moment he senses the disturbance in the Force caused by the destruction of the planet Alderaan. Not that I am keyed into the metaphysical Force undergirding the Star Wars universe; the disturbance I detect is caused by tremors in the newsprint universe.
“Who is Glenn Greenwald?”—a question the guileless robot C-3PO could ask.
He is the columnist at The Guardian who broke the Edward Snowden story this summer. At NSA headquarters, Greenwald is probably considered Darth Vader, but to journalists and scribblers like me, he is more like Han Solo, a secondary character in a disquieting story of journalism under siege.
But you don’t need Obi-Wan’s powers of perception to know that journalism has been in flux for years. That the Internet has been ruinous to the fortunes of magazines and newspapers is old news. Circulation of “old media” has plummeted and, as John Henry—the new owner of the Boston Globe—wrote recently, print dollars have given way to digital dimes.
Utah has certainly felt the impact. Both major dailies have had to tighten their belts drastically. On the heels of recent layoffs in its newsroom, The Salt Lake Tribune has been forced to sell its share of MediaOne. It is now a newspaper without a printing press.
Greenwald is out to jackhammer the foundation of journalism by eliminating objectivity as a condition of the news-reporting craft. “All journalism is subjective and a form of activism, even if an attempt is made to pretend that this isn’t so,” Greenwald wrote in a point-counterpoint exchange with New York Times columnist Bill Keller. Therefore, Greenwald argues, a reporter’s biases should be announced at the outset.
Keller disagrees. He believes a reporter should neither divulge what he or she believes nor instruct readers on what they should think. Instead, he or she should give them enough information to decide for themselves, ensuring that opinion stays on the editorial page.
Here is a hypothetical example of how Keller and most mainline journalists might frame a story about bicycle commuting:
“Because bikes share the street with cars, bicyclists must come to a full stop at four-way stop signs,” Jones says.
“No need,” Smith says, “because cyclists can safely treat a four-way stop sign as if it were a yield sign.”
Having provided opposing viewpoints and relevant facts, the reporter leaves it to the reader to decide which is true.
But in Greenwald’s brand of journalism, the reporter shows his hand by writing something like this: “Salt Lake City must incentivize bike commuting as part of its long-term transportation plan, and changing the rules on the four-way stop is a good place to start.”
Greenwald, who has criticized The New York Times for being too accommodating of the government, says he will soon launch a website to “provide a truly adversarial check on those in power” while disregarding “any unwritten rules that I see as antithetical to real journalism.” His investigative-reporting initiative is being funded by $250 million of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s personal fortune.
The Keller-Greenwald debate is not a new one. It brings to mind a crowded auditorium in Cambridge, Mass., in the late 1970s, where I listened to Hunter S. Thompson, the Keith Richards of the “New Journalism” movement, hold forth, a bottle of Wild Turkey on the lectern. I was a fan of Thompson’s iconoclastic Gonzo journalism, which was splashed on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. I was amused by the way he insinuated himself into the stories he covered. His manic, freewheeling reporting was always audacious and sometimes outrageous. His excesses discredited the “New Journalism” practiced by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and others in the 1960s and 1970s—or so I have heard. All were writers I read and admired. Their unconventional use of novelistic technique in reporting news made sense to me. First-person narratives, reconstructed scenes and full-on dialogue—none of it offended. Thus, I am predisposed to side with Greenwald.
That I don’t is the point of this column.
Keller speaks for me when he challenges Greenwald with this assertion: “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.”
Confirmation bias, the practice of seeking information consistent with one’s beliefs while disregarding that which isn’t, is pandemic. It thrives on the 24/7 news cycle. It feeds on infotainment and talking points repeated ad nauseam in loud voices. Of all the problems in the country today, this one ranks close to the top, just below income inequality, I think. It is insidious chiefly because many people consider themselves well-informed after watching an hour of Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow or—God help us—Jon Stewart. An uninformed citizen is ill-prepared to do the work that democracy requires of them—the work our republic depends on them to do.
I hope Glenn Greenwald is not the future of news. Even so, I welcome his voice in the choir. It will be interesting to watch him put his activist principles into practice. (I am also mindful of the fact that Han Solo came in from the cold and was promoted to the rank of general.)
The best news of all is that a guy with deep pockets is willing to spend $250 million to bankroll journalism. Would that a like-minded patron could be found for The Salt Lake Tribune.