Silence over reporter’s advocacy journalism is deafening

Editor’s note: This is a preview of an article that will appear in the summer 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

The press doesn’t cover nuance very well, especially when it is covering itself – or when a reporter is more of an advocate than an impartial observer.

The recent NSA stories and those about leaks of top-secret information are good examples. Both are important stories raising serious questions about the right balance between liberty and security. But the failure to provide nuanced, balanced information has left Americans with a distorted idea of what is at stake.

Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian – who wrote the stories about the National Security Agency’s massive collection of telephone calling data and access to Internet data – makes no pretense of objectivity. In fact, he thinks objectivity is a pretense. Working with Greenwald was award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was the contact to the leaker, Edward Snowden. Poitras is herself a vocal critic of the war on terrorism.

Greenwald has made his views explicit. He said: “There is a massive apparatus within the U.S. government that, with complete secrecy, has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.”

Greenwald’s story on the PRISM program’s access to Internet data contained a key overstatement. He said that the NSA “is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.” The denials of the Internet companies didn’t slow Greenwald.

In the end, it appears that the much-ridiculed denials of the service providers may have been accurate. There is no proof that online service firms are giving the government fully automated data without government requests having been reviewed by company lawyers.

Greenwald further overstated the facts on the “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC, when he called the NSC program a “rampant abuse” involving NSA “tapping into their (Americans’) online chats, their online calls of every sort.” He added that the government’s objective was to “enable the NSA to monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior anywhere in the world.”

This is the exaggerated statement of an advocate, not the careful statement of a professional reporter.

Greenwald stood by his story in a defensive blog on June 14, acknowledging he has “strong, candidly acknowledged opinions on surveillance policies.” He wrote that New York University professor Jay Rosen’s defense of his journalism got “to the heart about several core myths about what journalism is.” Rosen called objectivity “viewlessness.”

Greenwald, in his blog, also maintained that “the claim that current NSA spying is legal is dubious in the extreme.” In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the NSA programs are legal, in that Congress authorized them and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the government’s requests to collect data.

Yet the silence in the journalistic community about Greenwald’s advocacy journalism, and his exaggerations in print and in his TV appearances, has been deafening. It is true that the Guardian doesn’t hold itself to the professional standards of objectivity that the professional American press embraces. But isn’t there a responsibility on the part of the American press to alert readers that they are reading the work of an advocate?

In short, the programs Greenwald disclosed probably are legal and are not as invasive as he claimed. Nor is it clear that the disclosure is as historic as Greenwald maintains.

A USA Today story from 2006 disclosed most of the details of the telephone data collection. And the government has disclosed that it only sought warrants to analyze the telephone data in about 300 cases last year. Overall, the government claims that the NSA programs have helped deter 50 terrorist attacks worldwide.

The press’ shortcomings aren’t limited to one side of the NSA debate. The portrayal of leaker Snowden as a high school dropout with a pole-dancing girlfriend was absurd. Jack Shafer in Reuters made a good point about the demonization of whistleblowers, although the stories about Snowden aren’t in the same league as those planted by President Nixon’s men about Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame.

The press similarly has left out perspective and nuance in its coverage of the subpoenas of Associated Press reporters’ phone records. The government subpoenaed the records to track down the person who leaked information that reportedly jeopardized a double agent who was trying to locate the leading al-Qaida bomb maker.

Readers might be forgiven if they came away from press accounts thinking that there is a First Amendment right of a government official to leak classified information, that there was a First Amendment right for a journalist to protect a confidential source and that the Justice Department investigation was singling out the press for tough treatment. None of those conclusions would be correct.

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