It’s not that journalists have thin skins — it’s that they have no skins.
This adage gets trotted out once a month or more in better newsrooms to provide context for the overreaction of a reporter or editor who has found himself on the receiving end of criticism for something they’ve published. This week, some journalists who have been critical of Glenn Greenwald are seeking skin grafts for their skin grafts after reading his denunciation of them in the final chapter of his new book about the Snowden files, No Place to Hide.
I would ordinarily write something like — “Greenwald settles scores with the New York Daily News, David Gregory of NBC News, Alan Dershowitz, CNN, Reuters reporters, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, Leslie Kaufman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jill Abramson, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, and others in the press corps for criticizing him, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange” — except Greenwald isn’t a score-settler. Once you earn a place in his scope, there you will stay, even after he runs out of ammunition.
Which would be never. Whether the venue be the Web, TV, or Twitter, Greenwald is the sort of fighter who goes on punching after the bell has rung, after the last round has been fought, and continues once the ring has been packed up. If split open by a speeding Mack truck and left bleeding at the side of the Interstate, Greenwald would still be observed shouting at passing traffic, “Ya didn’t hurt me! Come back and get what you deserve, you diesel pig!”
I could be mistaken, but I must be one of the few journalists writing in the vicinity of Greenwald’s interests who have never tasted the orange of his flame, an oversight I hope to correct with this column. It’s gotta be my turn for abuse, if only because in No Place to Hide he quotes favorably from something praiseful I wrote about him for Reuters last summer.
For all its fury, Greenwald’s bellicosity becomes harmless if read through a filter. He’s the underdog, so he has to bark louder. He’s a loner (by design, it seems), so he has to be his own posse. He’s a David (by choice, it seems) against Goliaths. He graduated from law school, which teaches the art of making your offense your defense.
The downside of perpetually savaging your enemies comes when you make so much noise you can’t hear their sensible arguments. I’m fine with Greenwald skinning a few journalists, if only because everybody in our business needs an aggressive defoliation now and again. But Greenwald — who with Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman, have aided liberty with their exposes of government surveillance — gets tangled up in his own rancor when he dismisses as supplicants the national security beat reporters who consult with government officials before publishing.
The source of “establishment media hostility” for Snowden, Assange, and Greenwald, Greenwald writes almost categorically, is their acceptance of “the rule of dutiful spokespeople for political officials, especially where national security is concerned.” He continues, saying that the establishment media is “contemptuous of those who challenge or undermine Washington’s centers of power.”
As evidence, Greenwald points to the New York Timesdecision in 2004 to delay by more than a year the publication of its domestic spying story, and of a Los AngelesTimes call to spike — under Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of the New York Times — an AT&T-NSA story. Also steaming his endless buffet is the idea that journalists talk to national security officials before they publish secrets. Greenwald’s schema also doesn’t square with the Washington Post‘s aggressive pursuit of the Snowden story. No paper is more representative of the establishment and Washington power than the Post, and yet it has published on and on about the NSA files.
He’s right that some reporters tend to get too close to their sources (no matter what the beat, I might add) and fall into orbital capture. But national security reporters haven’t been sitting on their hands as Greenwald implies, a point that Michiko Kakutani and David Cole make in their reviews of No Place to Hide this week in the New York Times and Washington Post. It wasn’t a bend-over press that published stories about Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, black sites, and drones. And while he can carp about the delay, the New York Times ultimately defied the Bush administration to publish the NSA surveillance story and followed it with the controversial Swift financial surveillance investigation.
Greenwald seems to want to damn national security reporters for talking to national security officials about national security issues, thinking that it compromises them somehow or prevents them from publishing empire-shaking scoops. But talking to the government isn’t the same thing as taking orders from it. National security reporters can write more insightful and more accurate stories by discussing the leaks they obtain. They can also avoid publishing stories that are detrimental to my immediate safety, your immediate safety, the immediate safety of Glenn Greenwald’s life as well as the lives of U.S. troops. The cartoon Greenwald paints of a weakling press taking orders from the government clashes with the well-documentedaccounts of how contentious and brutal the reporting and publishing process can get.
Remember, not even Glenn Greenwald has dumped his entire stash of NSA files into the public domain. He’s in his Fortress of Solitude right now, turning them over in his hands and making mental notes. Like anybody who takes the mound, Greenwald wants to decide when to hurl his fastballs. Is anybody calling Greenwald a pliant hack for his style of deliberative journalism?
I’ve put myself on record as being a fan of Greenwald’s adversarial reporting, but that doesn’t mean I approve of every story and editorial choice he’s made. I’m also a fan of the more conventional and cautious brand of journalism, which frequently needs a kick in the ass from outsiders like Greenwald. Who says you can’t be a critic of both.
Note to Glenn: Reach for the oxyacetylene if you decide to torch me, okay? Send fireworks to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed burns all night. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first published the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, testifies before a Brazilian Congressional committee on NSA’s surveillance programs, in Brasilia August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Glenn Greenwald, is surrounded by journalists while he arrives to the George Polk Awards in New York, April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz