I’m a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald’s work, and I very much hope his new media venture, the Intercept, is a success – not just for his sake but for all of us who want to see the media landscape open up for independent journalists.
That said, I found his responses to Michael Albert in an interview on the problems of journalism utterly disillusioning. Questioned about the ideological constraints on journalists posed by the nature of the media’s commercial, corporate interests, he comes across as smug and complacent. To be honest, he sounds like the Margaret Thatcher of new media.
Let’s start with the best bit. Greenwald agrees with Albert that there are institutional and structural pressures on journalists. Here’s what he says:
These kinds of biases [in media organisations] are cultural and generalized, not absolute. The Guardian has published Noam Chomsky many times [sic]. So has Salon. The nature of theories of media bias isn’t that it’s impossible to ever inject certain ideas into them. That’s just not the case. Exceptions happen. But to the extent that you’re suggesting that most journalists would find it uncomfortable and even damaging to their career to write critically of their employers, of course that’s true. That’s true everywhere, not just in journalism.
Unfortunately, that’s the high point. It goes rapidly downhill from there.
I use my own experience as an example, but there are lots of other people who could report similarly. When I worked at Salon and at the Guardian, there were owners, funders, etc. They all had their own interests. But I negotiated into my contract to be able to write whatever I wanted and to publish directly onto the internet without anyone even looking at what I write much less having the ability to edit or change it except in the most extreme circumstances. And I think that one of the things we are seeing is that there are now journalists who are able to use the resources of institutions and enjoy certain benefits of the institution like readers and traffic, yet very much keep those institutions at arm’s length so the dynamics that you described don’t end up limiting or interfering in the kind of journalism they do – and I guess it is up to the individual journalists to figure out ways to make that happen.
I find this more than hard to stomach. I worked for many years at the Guardian, and unless things have changed dramatically in the last decade Greenwald is talking complete nonsense in suggesting that the arrangement he secured with the newspaper is commonplace, or even possible for the overwhelming majority of journalists.
The word that I used in the past about the deal that Greenwald struck with the Guardian was “unique”. Now, I’m prepared to be persuaded that things have changed enough in recent times that there are other journalists with such absolute independence written into their contracts, but I would want some evidence. And if there are a few – a tiny elite at the Guardian like, maybe, George Monbiot, Polly Toynbee, Simon Jenkins – the point would be that almost all of them are safely within the consensus of the Guardian. Most are veteran journalists who have proved that they are never likely to stray from a broad consensus the Guardian is comfortable accommodating.
The point about Greenwald – what made his appointment so exciting to so many of us – was our understanding that he did not fit into that safe consensus. The Guardian’s decision to give him real independence was a very risky undertaking from its perspective. It was a sign of quite how desperately they needed him, as a way to bolster their credentials among a radical US readership (not least because a strong US presence might finally make their online advertising strategy profitable).
In short, Greenwald was able to dictate his terms. That is simply not possible for 99% of other journalists, least of all radical journalists. For Greenwald to suggest otherwise is, in my view, a betrayal of their struggle. In fact, it is the equivalent of blaming the victim. The inability of most radical journalists to get a high-paid, high-profile job at the Guardian or the Huffpo is, Greenwald implies, not related to structural problems in the industry; it’s simply that they haven’t, like him or Jeremy Scahill, worked hard enough at “figuring out ways to make that happen”.
Or as Greenwald puts it at another point,
I agree that you do get a little ostracized [if you are radical] but again, you have to not succumb to it and instead fight for independence. So you are right that there are real institutional pressures, but I think there are ways to insulate yourself from them so you can do the kind of journalism that you want without regard for what anyone, including those in your media outlet, think about it.
Albert, to his credit, isn’t falling for this. In the end, Greenwald’s answers inadvertently prove the point that Albert is trying to make about structural constraints in the media. Greenwald is now a very well-paid senior journalist in the new media empire of Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder and multi-billionaire. Greenwald’s self-made, entrepreneurial journalism philosophy sounds very much in line with what one would expect Omidyar to believe about the industry.
Albert asks a very important and penetrating question:
So, have you ever written a piece for the Guardian that reveals aspects of their structure, their decision making, their division of labor, their pay scales and internal culture, and shows the implications for the people involved and for journalism, and, if someone did that, what do you think would be the response? Has anyone at the Guardian ever written such a piece even about another corporation, for that matter, much less the Guardian itself? Can they even think those thoughts?
Here’s Greenwald’s answer:
Again, a lot of this depends on one’s individual situation. Before coming to the Guardian I never wrote much about the internal decision-making processes of media outlets because the only work I had done with media outlets previously was at Salon, where I had total editorial independence and worked alone. The same was true at the Guardian, until I began reporting on the NSA documents. But I have zero doubt that – had I been so inclined and thought I had worthwhile things to say about it – I could have easily written about the internal processes of newspapers, including the Guardian, without being interfered with.
If someone had said something like this to Greenwald about any subject other than the media, I think he would have – rightly – torn their argument to shreds. Is Greenwald saying he cannot write about something unless he has direct experience of it? So did he ever work for the security services or the NSA? And does he really want to argue that he has “nothing worthwhile” to say – ever – about the role of corporations in controlling the media, the single most important prism through which we interpret the world and the events around us.
I can only hope enough readers and colleagues call Greenwald out over this interview that he is forced to do a reality check. Yes, Glenn, we hold you to a higher standard than almost anyone else. But that’s because you’re only any use as long as you stay honest. Lose that and you lose us.