Can Greenwald be trusted with journalism’s future?

Every journalist should read this week’s debate between Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, and Glenn Greenwald, who has written stories in The Guardian based on Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance.

The debate is between Keller’s classical brand of impartial, let-the-reader decide journalism and Greenwald’s brand of advocacy journalism where the reporter transparently discloses his beliefs and asserts facts that support those beliefs.

Each thinks his approach is more honest and credible.  Keller thinks impartiality is more credible because the reporter puts aside his or her views while marshalling the facts for the reader to decide. Greenwald thinks his activism is more credible because readers know where he is coming from and can trust him not to cater to the government-speak.

Greenwald praises Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as symbolizing the journalism of the future.  Keller points out that Assange was once quoted as saying he didn’t care if his leaks resulted in the deaths of some of those whose names were revealed by publication of classified cables.

Many who read this exchange will admire Greenwald’s passion and self-confident belief in the justice and rightness of his journalistic crusade.  And to many it will appear as though Greenwald’s is the journalism of the future, while Keller’s are 20th century journalistic values on their way into the dustbin.

One must ask, however, whether one can trust a journalist like Greenwald, who from the beginning of his reporting has believed that the NSA surveillance program was illegal – when, in fact, most of the program was approved by all three branches of government.

See GJR for Greenwald’s exaggerated claims:

In his closing, Greenwald accuses Keller and believers in impartiality with “donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded ‘activist.'”

Yet, isn’t it the advocacy journalist, like Greenwald, who speaks from on-high and  asserts a monopoly on the truth.  Keller offers Greenwald good advice: “Humility is as dear as passion. So my advice is: Learn to say, ‘We were wrong.'”

Keller adds this warning: ” 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.”

In the end, the Keller-Greenwald debate may offer a misleadingly binary choice – either Keller impartiality or Greenwald advocacy.  Why not both?  History suggests that the nation is best served by a combination of the traditional news values represented by big stories like the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and secret CIA prisons together with the intelligent advocacy of commentators such as I.F. Stone, William Safire, Bill Kristol and David Corn.

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