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Hey, MSM: All Journalism is Advocacy Journalism

Glenn Greenwald (AP/Vincent Yu)

So New York Times Dealbook writer Andrew Ross Sorkin has apologized to journalist Glenn Greenwald for saying he'd "almost arrest" him, for his supposed aid and comfort of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. "I veered into hyperbole," was Sorkin's explanation.

I got into trouble the other day on Twitter for asking if David Gregory may have just had a "brain fart" when he asked Greenwald his infamous question, "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you be charged with a crime?" I hadn't seen the show and had only read the quote, and quite frankly, I don't watch a lot of David Gregory. Apparently, in context, even the question I asked is absurd (more on that later). But Sorkin is different. For Sorkin to call his outburst an accident, that I know is hilarious.  

Did he also "veer into" a long career as a shameless, ball-gargling prostitute for Wall Street? As Jeff Cohen eloquently pointed out, isn't Sorkin the guy who's always bragging about how close he is to top bankers and parroting their views on things? This is a man who admitted, in print, that he only went down to Zucotti Park after a bank C.E.O. asked him, "Is this Occupy thing a big deal?"

(Sorkin's reassuring response: "As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don't have to worry about being in imminent personal danger . . .")

And when Senator Carl Levin's report about Goldman's "Big Short" and deals like Abacus and Timberwolf came out, it was Sorkin who released a lengthy screed in Dealbook defending Goldman, one I instantly recognized as being nearly indistinguishable from the excuses I'd heard from Goldman's own P.R. people.

But the biggest clue that Sorkin's take on Greenwald was no accident came in the rest of that same Squawk Box appearance (emphasis mine):

I feel like, A, we've screwed this up, even letting him get to Russia. B, clearly the Chinese hate us to even let him out of the country.

I would arrest him . . . and now I would almost arrest Glenn Greenwald, who's the journalist who seems to want to help him get to Ecuador.

We? Wow. That's a scene straight out of Malcolm X. ("What's the matter, boss, we sick?") As a journalist, when you start speaking about political power in the first person plural, it's pretty much glue-factory time.

The irony of all of this is that this whole discussion is taking place in a phony "debate" that's now being cooked up about the legitimacy of advocacy journalism, which is exactly what Sorkin practices when he goes down to Zucotti Park on behalf of a bank CEO or when he talks about how "we" screwed up, letting Snowden out of the country. Preposterously, they've made the debate about Glenn Greenwald, who absolutely does practice advocacy journalism. But to pretend he's the only one is lunacy.

All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it's presented, every report by every reporter advances someone's point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald, or graspingly with Sorkin, or institutionally with a company like Fox.

But to pretend there's such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly; nobody in this business really takes that concept seriously. "Objectivity" is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that's all it is, striving.

Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage.

Like many others, in my career I decided early on that I'd rather be out in the open about my opinions, and let readers know what my biases are to the extent that I can. I recognize, however, that there's value in the other kind of reporting, where papers like the Times strive to take personal opinions out of the coverage and shoot for a "Just the facts, Ma'am" style. The value there is that people trust that approach, and readers implicitly enter into a contract with the newspaper or TV station that takes it, assuming that the organization will honestly try to show all points of view dispassionately.

Some organizations do a great job of that, but others often violate that contract, and carefully choose which "Just facts" to present and which ones to ignore, so as to put certain political or financial interests in a better light. But that doesn't mean the approach per se is illegitimate. It's just different.

What's frightening now is that we suddenly have talk from people who ought to know better, not only advancing the childish lie that Glenn Greenwald and his ilk are the world's only advocacy journalists, but also that the legitimacy of such journalists is even in question.

Gregory, I later found out, shamelessly went there in his exchange with Greenwald, saying, "Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regards to what you're doing."

But even crazier was a subsequent Washington Post article, also cited by Cohen, entitled "On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter?" The article was unintentionally comic and surrealistic because despite writer Paul Farhi's above-the-fray tone, the mere decision to write such a piece is a classic demonstration of the aforementioned brand of hidden-bias, non-advocacy advocacy.

I mean, why not write exactly the same piece, but ask whether Andrew Ross Sorkin or David Gregory in this scandal has become something other than a reporter? One could make exactly the same argument using the behaviors of those two as the hook. The editorial decision to make it about Glenn was therefore a major piece of advocacy, despite the "agnostic" language employed in the piece (straight-news editors love the term "agnostic" and hilariously often think it applies to them, when in fact they usually confine their doubts to permitted realms of thought).

The Post piece was full of the usual chin-scratching claptrap about whether it's appropriate for journalists to have opinions, noting that "the line between journalism – traditionally, the dispassionate reporting of facts – and outright involvement in the news seems blurrier than ever."

This is crazy – news organizations are always involved in the news. Just ask the citizens of Iraq, who wouldn't have spent the last decade in a war zone had every TV network in America not credulously cheered the White House on when it blundered and bombed its way into Baghdad on bogus WMD claims. Ask Howard Dean, whom I watched being driven literally bonkers by the endless questions posed by "dispassionate" reporters about whether or not he was "too left" or "too strident" to be president, questions they were being spoon-fed in bars along the campaign trail late at night by Democratic Party hacks who resented the fact that Dean went through outside channels (i.e. the Internet) to get campaign funding, and in his speeches was calling out the Dems' pathetic cave-in on the Iraq issue.

Even worse was this quote in the Post piece from a University professor:

Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's journalism school, said having a "social commitment" doesn't disqualify anyone from being a journalist. But the public should remain skeptical of reporters who are also advocates. "Do we know if he's pulling his punches or has his fingers on the scale because some information that should he should be reporting doesn't fit [with his cause]?" Wasserman asked in an interview. "If that's the case, he should be castigated."

Wasserman, the piece pointed out, noted that he hadn't seen such cause for alarm in Greenwald's case. But even so, his opinion is astonishing. We should be skeptical of reporters who are advocates, because they might be pulling punches to advance a cause?

Well . . . that's true. But only if we're talking about all reporters, because all reporters are advocates. If we're only talking about people like Glenn Greenwald, who are open about their advocacy, that's a crazy thing to say. People should be skeptical of everything they read. In fact, people should be more skeptical of reporters who claim not to be advocates, because those people are almost always lying, whether they know it or not.

The truly scary thing about all of this is that we're living in an age where some very strange decisions are being made about who deserves rights, and who doesn't. Someone shooting at an American soldier in Afghanistan (or who is even alleged to have done so) isn't really a soldier, and therefore isn't really protected by the Geneva Conventions, and therefore can be whisked away for life to some extralegal detention center. We can kill some Americans by drone attacks without trial because they'd ceased to have rights once they become enemy combatants, a determination made not collectively but by some Star Chamber somewhere.

Some people apparently get the full human-rights coverage; some people on the other end aren't really 100 percent people, so they don't.

That's what makes this new debate about Greenwald and advocacy journalism so insidious. Journalists of all kinds have long enjoyed certain legal protections, and those protections are essential to a functioning free press. The easiest way around those protections is simply to declare some people "not journalists." Ten years ago, I would have thought the idea is crazy, but now any journalist would be nuts not to worry about it. Who are these people to decide who's a journalist and who isn't? Is there anything more obnoxious than a priesthood?

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