Written by: Corey Washington
Primary Source: Zero Ideology
When I began reading Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” about how he encountered Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance activities he helped Snowden expose, I had the sense that Greenwald was something of a zealot about our need to be free from being watched. By the end, I was convinced he was a zealot, but this feeling was overwhelmed by the stunning case he had made at how staggeringly far the US government had gone to collect information on people who it had no reason to suspect of wrong doing.
One of the more compelling aspects of the book is Greenwald’s criticism of the Washington Post and the New York Times for their coverage of major national security stories. These papers exhibit what we might call a pro-government/pro-establishment bias that leads them to self-censor, delay publication and obfuscate crimes and transgressions by the government. The bias is neither left nor right but favors those in power.
Here is a selection of Greenwald’s comments.
the Washington Post [which] is, to me, is the belly of the Beltway media beast, embodying all of the worst attributes of the US political media: excessive closeness to the government, reverence for the institutions of the national security state, routine exclusion of dissenting voices. The paper’s own media critic, Howard Kurtz, had documented in 2004 how the paper had systematically amplified pro-war voices in the run up to the invasion of Iraq while downplaying or excluding opposition. The Post’s news coverage, concluded Kurtz, had been “strikingly one-sided” in favor of the invasion.
One of my few criticism of WikiLeaks over the years had been that they, too, had at times similarly handed major scoops to the very establishment media organizations that do the most to protect the government, thereby enhancing their stature and importance.
Some of Snowden’s material was given to the Post as a means of gaining legitimacy for the leak and protecting Snowden and Greenwald’s collaborator. Greenwald was opposed:
Worse, I knew that the Post would dutifully abide by the unwritten protective rules that govern how the establishment media report on official secrets. According to these rules, which allow the government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact, editors first go to officials and advise them what they intend to publish. National security officials then tell the editors all the ways in which national security will supposedly be damaged by the disclosures. A protracted negotiation takes place over what will and will not be published. At best, substantial delay results. Often, patently newsworthy information in suppressed. This is what led the Post, when reporting on the existence of CIA black sites in 2005, to conceal the identities of those countries in which prisons were based, thus allowing lawless CIA torture sites to continue.
The same process caused the New York Times to conceal the existence of the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping program for more than a year after its reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, were widely ready to report it in mid-2004. President Bush had summoned the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzburger, and its editor in chief, Bill Keller, to the Oval Office to insist, ludicrously, that they would be helping terrorists if they revealed that the NSA was spying on Americans without the warrants required by law. The New York Times obeyed these dictates and blocked publication of the article for fifteen months–until the end of 2005, after Bush had been reelected (thereby allowing him to stand for reelection while concealing from the public that he was eavesdropping on Americans without warrants). Even then, the Times eventually ran the NSA story only because a frustrated Risen was about to publish the revelations in his book and the paper did not want to be scooped by its own reporter.
Greenwald also offers an analysis of how this sympathy for power infects the content of what journalists at these newspapers write, leading them to obscure claims unfavorable to the government by means of false balance:
Then there’s the tone that establishment media outlets use to discuss government wrongdoing. The culture of US journalism mandates that reporters avoid any clear or declarative statements and incorporate government assertions into their reporting, treating them with respect no matter how frivolous they are. They use what the Post’s own media columnist, Erik Wemple, derides as middle-of-the-road-ese: never say anything definitive but instead vesting with equal credence the government’s defenses and the actual facts, all of which has the effect of diluting revelations to a muddled, incoherent, often inconsequential mess. Above all else, they invariably give great weight to official claims, even when those claims are patently false or deceitful.
It was this fear-driven, obsequious journalism that led the Times, the Post, and many other outlets to refuse to use the word “torture” in their reporting on the Bush interrogation techniques, even though they freely used that word to describe the exact same tactics when used by other governments around the world. It was also what produced the debacle of media outlets laundering baseless government claims about Saddam and Iraq to sell the American public on a war based on false pretenses that US media amplified rather than investigated.
Yet another unwritten rule designed to protect the government is that media outlets publish only a few such secret documents, and then stop. They would report on an archive like Snowden’s so as to limit its impact–publish a handful of stories, revel in the accolades of a “big scoop,” collect prizes, and then walk away, ensuring that nothing really changed.
All valid points, to a certain extent. But there is an elephant in the room: the question of how to decide which leaked documents should be made public. Greenwald suggests this a simple question to answer. It is not.
Still, Greenwald’s piece reminds us that in order to get a 360 view of issues one should examine both establishment and anti-establishment sources in addition to considering alternative points of view across the Left-Right divide and from the one’s home country and others.
We should let Greenwald’s targets reply though. The Times published a fairly critical review of the book by Michael Kinsley.
The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.
The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” … Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?
The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.
The Post’s review by The Nation columnist David Cole is less critical (Greenwald considered giving the initial Snowden revelations to The Nation) and concludes:
This is an important and illuminating book. It would have been more important and illuminating were Greenwald able to acknowledge that the choices we face about regulating surveillance in the modern age are difficult and that there are no simple answers. (He notably suggests virtually nothing in the way of positive reforms, sticking instead to criticism.)
Snowden handed Greenwald the story of a lifetime. NSA coverage based on the leaked material resulted in The Washington Post and the Guardian winning Pulitzer Prizes for public service this year. Greenwald has done the world a service by helping to explain the significance of the disclosures for everyone’s privacy. He has helped spark a much-needed national and worldwide debate about how to preserve privacy when we do so much online, and when the NSA and others have the technological means to track virtually all we do there. But his book would have been more persuasive had he confronted what is difficult about the issue and not simply been satisfied with lobbing grenades at all who are less radical than he is.
Bottom line: zealots may oversimplify matters, but this one has provided valuable information.
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