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Journalism’s infatuation with Glenn Greenwald

Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by William H. Freivogel.

The journalism world’s embrace of Glenn Greenwald and his advocacy reporting is now complete with the award of the Pulitzer Prize to the Guardian for Greenwald’s disclosure of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency secrets.

As with many youthful infatuations, the journalism world has rushed headlong into this relationship without listening to the alarms that surely went off in the heads of veteran journalists. Some journalists may be ambivalent about Greenwald’s ethics, but not ambivalent enough to withhold journalism’s top prize – or even to publicly debate whether it should have been awarded to his former newspaper.

The Pulitzer’s rules are broad. They require adherence to “the highest journalistic principles,” which are explained as “values such as honesty, accuracy and fairness.”

Did Greenwald live up to the highest journalists principles?

The Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics requires that journalists “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.” The Association Press Managing Editors state that “the newspaper should strive for impartial treatment of issues and dispassionate handling of controversial subjects.” The American Society of Newspaper Editors demands “impartiality” and states that “every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presently fairly.” National Public Radio demands its reporters adhere to “impartiality as citizens and public figures. … We are not advocates.”

Yet Greenwald is unabashedly and proudly an advocate who ridicules traditional journalistic ethics, as well as those, such as Bill Keller, the former New York Times editor who espouse those ethics.

As Greenwald put it so very elegantly: “If the U.S. government said you shouldn’t publish this, and you shouldn’t publish that, and you shouldn’t publish this other thing, because to do so will endanger national security, Bill Keller proudly said the New York Times didn’t publish it. He was … beaming, like a third-grader that had just gotten a gold star from his teacher.”

In addition to ridiculing Keller, Greenwald said he was fundamentally dishonest and “deceitful” for trying to be impartial. Greenwald calls instead for “a looser, more passionate form of new media reporting.”

He is passionate.

At the time his first stories were published a year ago, Greenwald made overblown claims about what he had found. He maintained that the NSA could “monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior anywhere in the world.” He also stated that “the claim that current NSA spying is legal is dubious in the extreme.”

In fact, the NSA program primarily collected metadata, not the content of telephone calls – a distinction many critics missed – and it had been approved by Congress, the president and most courts.

Don’t misunderstand. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer was well-deserved. The Snowden revelations printed in the Washington Post and the Guardian were clearly the biggest news story of the year. And that’s what the Pulitzer is supposed to reward.

The Snowden disclosures are more important than the Pentagon Papers. Disclosure of current abuses of privacy is more significant than a multiple-volume history of the Vietnam War.

The Snowden leaks forced President Obama to admit that the data collection had not been as effective as claimed in stopping terrorist incidents. And it has forced the president to call for reforms – although having phone companies hold onto metadata instead of the government may be insignificant.

All of these are strong reasons to justify giving the Public Service Pulitzer to the Post – and possibly the Guardian.

Nor have many Greenwald critics provided good reasons for denying the Pulitzer to the Guardian. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called Snowden a “traitor” and Greenwald an “accomplice,” for example.

Snowden is not a traitor, and Greenwald is not an accomplice. Snowden probably violated the World War I-era Espionage Act by disclosing government secrets he was sworn to protect. But that’s not treason. And Greenwald’s reporting of the government secrets is exactly what the press is supposed to do when it comes upon secret government practices that the American people should know about. In some ways, Greenwald harkens back to such icons as I.F. Stone, the legendary leftist critic of the American military. But Stone never won a Pulitzer for news reporting.

Greenwald, by turning his Rio residence into a repository for Snowden’s documents and parceling them out to news outlets, has skated close to the line of accomplice. But he has taken care to play a journalistic role in connection with the stories based on the documents he was distributing.

Nor have ad hominem attacks on Greenwald been persuasive. Some critics pointed out that he spoke to Socialist groups and took anti-Israeli positions. Tom Hicks, the Pulitzer-Prize winning national security reporter, tweeted recently, “Glenn, any comments from you or Edward Snowden on the recent round of media shutdowns in Russia?” This may be clever, but it has nothing to do with the substance of the disclosures.

What matters is whether the journalism community, in its crush on Greenwald and Snowden, has forgotten first principles.

Greenwald’s call for more transparent, passionate reporting has more emotional appeal than traditional journalism’s call for objectivity, impartiality and disinterested observation. Greenwald’s are hot words; traditional journalists are stuck with cold ones. He and his fellow advocates, such as Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman, may be winning the debate.

But Keller had some good advice for Greenwald last year.

“Humility is as dear as passion,” he wrote. “So my advice is: Learn to say, ‘We were wrong.’ ”

Journalists, like everyone else, are in dangerous territory when they believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

Election night viewing, GJR-style

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True confession: Gateway Journalism Review’s staff is made up of political junkies with long traditions of monitoring election-evening results. Our own political media monitoring likely mirrors that of much of the American population. So, at the risk of being too introspective, here is how GJR staffers spent Tuesday evening.

John Jarvis, associate managing editor:

This time around, there was no newsroom chaos, no page-layout duties and no late-night deadlines for me.

On the night of this year’s presidential election, I headed over to a gathering of friends after my master’s seminar was done for the evening.

Eight of us were flipping between channels on television, trying to catch the latest news on how the race was panning out, while at the same time all of us were carrying on a running Facebook chat commentary with a larger group of friends from across the nation. The technology that allowed us to be connected with each other in real time, sharing each tidbit from the various news sites we were monitoring, didn’t exist even four years ago.

It was a far cry from the first presidential race I was involved with as a journalist, when I was an assistant wire editor gathering information from the Associated Press for the next day’s newspaper in 1988.

Part of me misses that newsroom chaos and deadline pressure that goes with these quadrennial contests. Other parts of me – my nerves and my liver, in particular – don’t miss it at all.

Sam Robinson, managing editor:

Initially, I tried to check election results online. However, living in a rural setting, my Internet connection is often interrupted because of weather conditions and high-volume usage – and we had both. I turned to television network news and social media via my mobile phone.

My channel surfing included a rotation through Fox News, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS. Several of the broadcasts comprised anchors and pundits talking over one another and not listening to what was being said. This frustrated me. I finally landed on CBS News around 10 p.m. I found its coverage to be in a traditional journalistic style that I appreciated. Bob Schieffer provided context and perspective, having covered many elections.

I first learned President Obama had been declared the winner via Twitter, specifically in a tweet from BBC News. (Actually, I first “heard” of the Obama win from my 14-year-old daughter who shouted, “Obama won!” Despite her youth, she had taken a keen interest in the Missouri U.S. Senate race between Democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill and her challenger, Todd Akin, and stayed up late watching election results.)

I was following BBC and Global Post news organizations, as well as several entertainers on Twitter. One such entertainer was Lady Gaga. Gaga had posts throughout the day about polling locations in New York and the East Coast, as well as her election-night thoughts. I suspect many learned of the Obama victory via Lady Gaga, given her more than 31 million Twitter followers, which is quite impressive considering organizations such as BBC Breaking News has 4.3 million and CBS just 2.2 million followers.

William A. Babcock, editor:

I come from a divided family. My father was Republican ward chairman from Northern Ohio. My mother was an ardent FDR supporter. In 1960 my father personally routed GOP Henry Cabot Lodge’s caravan down Lake Road in Avon Lake, Ohio, so I could shake the hand of “the future vice president of the United States.” Eight years later I passed out of college freshman English by writing an essay – obviously not overly persuasive – enumerating the reasons why Richard M. Nixon was unqualified to be president. Add to this mix the fact that a Philadelphia signer of the U.S. Constitution, George Clymer, is a relative of mine. So, yes, American politics clearly runs through my veins.

Thus, as I’ve done since the days I was a young general assignment reporter for the Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio) and senior international news editor and writing coach for the Christian Science Monitor, I spent election eve phoning people from across the nation. Former journalism workers, current academic colleagues, one-time students, my daughter – none were spared from my Tuesday “what do you think of the results so far?” phone calls.

At the same time on Tuesday I bounced between PBS and NBC and NPR. Like Sam Robinson, I had difficulty accessing the Internet that evening, so I relied on the traditional media for my political news. I first heard of AP’s and NBC’s projection while on my cell phone with a former news college as I watched PBS. I later fell asleep while listening to WSIU’s radio updates (the local National Public Radio affiliate) on voting in the swing states of Ohio and Florida.

I should add that during this semester at Southern Illinois University’s School of Journalism, my undergraduate and graduate classes have been divided into groups of students, with group members monitoring the political coverage of specific news organizations. When I asked these students Tuesday how they planned to monitor the election results, everyone, with one exception, said he or she would use a variety of broadcast, cable and online media that evening. The lone student said he planned to go to bed early Tuesday, set his alarm for Wednesday morning and then turn on the radio to see who had won the race.

William H. Freivogel, publisher:

I’ve covered just about every election night for the past 40 years, most of them at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. One – 1984 – was particularly memorable. My wife, Margaret, and I had been covering vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that year. We had traveled on her plane enough to get to know her pretty well. On election night, we packed up our four young children at our house in Bethesda, Md., and traveled to her campaign celebration/wake at the New York Hilton hotel, where Margie covered the story.

As memorable as that election was, I have never lived through a night like this year’s. I am a contributor to the St. Louis Beacon, the online news site where my wife is the editor. I was only too happy when the Beacon asked me to help on election night. But it was a different scene than usual. The Beacon’s television partner was filming in the newsroom. The Beacon was part of a public media consortium called Beyond November that provided detailed coverage of the election campaign and results. The other members of the consortium were St. Louis Public Radio and the Nine Network.

While the Beacon reporters were writing their stories, TV reporters from the Nine Network and Channel 5 were conducting interviews a few feet away from where I was working. Adding to the chaos, Beacon reporters monitoring Twitter feeds would urgently pass along the latest tweets – NBC had called Pennsylvania for Obama; Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin was about to give a concession speech. These tweets were not themselves credible enough for us to publish, but they were valuable tips.

Meanwhile, I was getting messages on my cell phone. The messages from my nephew, a conservative Republican, went from slightly hopeful to depressed to despondent. My son-in-law, who was in Atlanta, sent a note saying that national TV had just broadcast a picture of Margie, sitting in the newsroom. A friend of mine sent me an email telling me to stop picking my nose – his not-so-gentle way of saying he had seen me on the tube.

When, suddenly, NBC called the election for Obama, I heard about it the way I’ve heard about most elections in my lifetime – on TV. Moments later my daughter, Liz, sent a simple message, “Yay.”

I was stunned by NBC’s call. The sudden reporting of the West Coast results along with the decisions to call Ohio and Iowa had suddenly sent a nail-biter over the edge to a decision. All I could remember was the nightmare election night of 2000 when the Post-Dispatch, like most other papers, had called the election for George W. Bush. We had retired to a nearby tavern only to see the election move from “decided” to “undecided.” It was the most helpless feeling I had ever had as a journalist.

Pretty soon, though, it became clear that this election would not flip, even if one state did. By 2 a.m., I was crawling into bed. For the past two months I have spent about half an hour before falling to sleep checking all of the RealClear politics polls on my cell phone, reading Nate Silver’s 538 blog and running through the political stories on the New York Times and the Washington Post. Before the St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs, I’d also check all of the ball scores and the standings as well. My wife thought it was a little obsessive.

But now, my 2012 election, full of tweets and blogs and late nights on the cell phone, was over. My phone was dark on the nightstand. But pitchers and catchers report in February, and I was happy to see that, two days after the election, Politico already was reporting a poll out of Iowa finding that Hillary Clinton had a big lead on Joe Biden for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

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