The New York Times has an article on Glenn Greenwald, who has broken two stories on the NSA surveillance programs that now occupy most thinking people’s attention, which is titled thus: ‘Activist Blogger Is At The Center Of A Debate‘ on its front page. (The article’s title reads ‘ Blogger, With Focus on Surveillance, Is at Center of a Debate’). That headline, and the content of the story, tells us a great deal about what is wrong with modern journalism and why civil liberties outrages aren’t so outrageous any more.
Greenwald is most emphatically not at the ‘center’ of any debate. He is not the story; the surveillance program is. But surely, some background on the reporter who broke the story would let readers evaluate his credibility? I’m afraid this claim does not withstand closer scrutiny even though it smacks of a pleasing epistemic rectitude: ‘all we are doing is investigating the source of this story’. To focus on him is a a straightforward misdirection of journalistic effort. The New York Times should be concentrating on uncovering more details about the surveillance programs in the Greenwald articles, but not about Greenwald himself.
(Incidentally, just for good measure, the New York Times article includes a couple of ad-hominem slams against Greenwald:
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”
Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”
There is praise for Greenwald too, but all of this is really besides the point.)
The correct thing for New York Times journalists to do at this point is to get to work on verifying the authenticity of the documents that Greenwald’s source has made public and to explain to their readers: what their legal and political implications are; how these programs fit into the context of the surveillance that the previous administration kicked off; what the relevant sections of the Patriot Act are; whether the defenses made by administration officials stand up to scrutiny or not; and so on. The New York Times has done some of these things, but my point is that at this moment, those ought to be its exclusive focus. There is a chance here for a serious journalist to expose the workings of a provably out-of-control government; anything else is a distraction at this stage.
This kind of missing-the-point is not restricted to the focus on Greenwald. Consider for instance, the stories on the Bradley Manning trial. As Matt Taibbi points out, most media outlets are obsessed by his personal background and are rather spectacularly missing the forest for the trees:
Unsurprisingly, the citizenry marches on, its attention diverted.