Reply to Jonathan Cook

Dear Jonathan –

Thanks for the kind words and (excluding your headline) the thoughtful critique. I’ve long been a fan of your work as well, but in this case, you have profoundly misunderstood and misinterpreted my views. I’m not interested in ascribing blame, as I’ll be happy to concede that the fault may lay with my having unclearly expressed myself in a Skype interview, but I instead want to make clear what I do and do not actually  think on these matters.

In sum, I do not remotely deny that structural and corporate constraints at establishment media organizations severely constrict the range of acceptable views that can be aired. I’ve made that very point countless times over the years in all sorts of venues. I knew exactly who I was talking to in this interview: both the interviewer and the readership. We’ve all read, understood, and accepted the fundamental validity of Manufacturing Consent and related media theories. My point wasn’t to deny its validity but rather the opposite: to affirm its validity, but then point out that one nonetheless should try and can sometimes succeed in overcoming those constraints. That is a point

I made quite clearly here:

These kinds of biases are cultural and generalized, not absolute. . . .  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.

Three points about this:

(1) In most of the interview, I was talking about my own personal experiences at Salon, the Guardian, and now with the Intercept: not generalizing to everyone’s experience. That’s because the context of the interview was the launch of our new media organization, and many of the questions which Michael asked were about whether I have been able, and would continue to be able, to maintain editorial independence and journalistic freedom despite working in conjunction with corporate structures. I have been able to do so, and tried to explain why and how.

I don’t remotely think my situation is common, or that all or even most independent journalists enjoy the same leverage, or that my own experience proves these constraints aren’t real and formidable. Of course they are real and formidable, and I repeatedly said so – both here and elsewhere. But I also know that I would never allow any media institution, or anyone else, to interfere with my journalistic freedom, and that was the point I was making. To me, that was the primary point of the interview: to explain my experiences doing journalism with these media organizations. So that’s what I spoke about.

 In general, I dislike theories of defeatism: telling other people that certain institutions or constraints are so formidable and absolute in their design that it’s literally impossible to successfully exploit or infiltrate them. I want to encourage people, especially independent journalists, to do the opposite: to think about how to exploit these institutions, to infiltrate them, to use them to one’s advantage, to overcome their repressive structures.

There are all sorts of reasons why one might try and fail. That’s because these institutions are indeed formidable, and they are designed to be self-protective, and most people will lack the leverage to defy their dictates for a whole variety of unavoidable reasons. But many people do use these institutions to be heard, to do the kind of impressive journalism they want to do, to find ways to inject prohibited and even subversive ideas into the discourse they produce. I think most people are aware of the reasons that’s so hard to do. But I also hope people will think about how to do that successfully. I want to encourage, not discourage, people to think about how to overcome limits and shatter these constraints.

 I do believe the internet has shifted the balance of power in journalism as compared to, say, 20 or 30 years ago – probably not radically, but definitely substantially. It is simply no longer necessary to go to work for a large media organization if you want to build a decent-sized readership. There are journalists, commentators and activists from around the world who have never been employed by a large media organization who have amassed thousands, or tens of thousands, or even more Twitter followers – more than many if not most of the full-time reporters and columnists for those established media organizations.

In a world where media organizations are financially struggling and are desperate for online buzz and traffic, that vests these independent journalists and activists with real leverage. Large media organizations need them more than they need these large media organizations, and so they can often set the terms of their work. I hope independent journalists don’t assume that they’re destined for failure if they try to use the resources and platforms of these large media organizations to be heard, because I don’t think they are. Many of them are succeeding at this, and I hope more do.

* * * * *

Large corporate media organizations are almost always going to be instruments for narrowing the scope of ideas and ensuring that the views which serve their institutional interests are promoted, favored and amplified. That’s intrinsic to their design and purpose. That proposition is self-evident and not in dispute. I certainly did not intend to dispute it, and don’t think I did.

But I also think that no human system is invulnerable. They all have weaknesses to exploit, and there are always new and innovative strategies that people can devise to undermine them if they believe that doing so is possible. I know it’s extremely difficult, and a huge challenge, and will often result in failure. Many of the independent journalists I admire most do their work entirely outside of these institutions, and that is a vital and obviously valid choice. But it’s not the only choice, and I want independent journalists devoted to the right values and ideals to maximize the strategic options they consider viable.

Thanks again for the critique. It’s always nice to have pushback from this direction –


Glenn Greenwald

1 comment

  1. John Kilkenny February 19, 2014 4:48 pm 

    Dear Glenn,
    No one wishes you more success than I do. You are only human and I hope you take Jonathan Cook’s criticism of smugness seriously. Nothing has pleased me more to see you eviscerate the corporate media with bullet proof logic. I assume you know better than anyone the frustration well intentioned journalists experience in dealing with their corporate overlords. Keep to the high road and thanks for helping to expose the betrayal of the NSA to the world.

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