Anyone who has been following online media for more than a few years probably remembers the heated debates that swept through the blogosphere over whether bloggers should be considered journalists — a furor that died down somewhat once traditional journalists started blogging, and some blog networks became media entities in their own right.
There is an important issue at the heart of this question, however, which Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has helped to highlight as he pursues the NSA story: namely, that denying someone the status of “journalist” has potentially serious implications when espionage and other charges are being waved around.
This past weekend, Greenwald appeared on the NBC show Meet The Press, where host David Gregory peppered him with questions about the story and his role in it — and many of these questions appeared to be aimed at the idea that the Guardian writer was more of an advocate for whistle-blower Edward Snowden than a journalist. For example, Gregory said that “the question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing,” and also later referred to Greenwald as “somebody who claims that he’s a journalist.”
Would Gregory have made those comments if someone from the New York Times was on the show talking about a major investigative report? Unlikely. Greenwald is seen as fair game in part because he isn’t a traditional journalist, but rather someone who started as a blogger, and also because he has an obvious point of view. Political blogger Andrew Sullivan — who recently left a traditional media outlet to run his own standalone site — said in a post about the interview that underlying Gregory’s questions was the mainstream media’s “fear and loathing and envy of the blogger journalist.”
Did Greenwald “aid and abet” Snowden?
Another inflammatory moment in the Meet The Press interview came when Gregory asked whether Greenwald believed that he should be prosecuted “to the extent that you aided and abetted” Snowden. This triggered a heated debate on Twitter over whether this question was inappropriate, since it seemed to accuse the Guardian writer of a crime. While FT columnist John Gapper and others argued that it was a simple question designed to raise an important issue about the media’s involvement in the story, others said Gregory had gone beyond the role of an interviewer and become a mouthpiece for the government’s views.
As Rosen explained in a post, the term “aiding and abetting” happens to be loaded with significance, because those were the terms used by the Department of Justice in a recent case where Fox News reporter James Rosen was accused of aiding a government official who leaked classified information. Greenwald also noted in his response to Gregory’s question — both on the show and afterwards — that this kind of questions is hugely problematic at a time when the government seems to want to criminalize investigative journalism.
And that’s why the “bloggers vs. journalists” question is so critical: there may not be a journalist shield law, but the fact that someone is seen as a journalist working for a traditional journalistic outlet at least provides a bit of a barrier to potential prosecution, so it’s important when someone like Gregory appears to be trying to “read Glenn Greenwald out of the journalism club,” as Rosen puts it.
Transparency vs. objectivity
As the journalism professor argued in a separate post about Greenwald’s approach as a journalist, taking an advocacy role towards stories like the NSA’s surveillance program can have a lot of value — and is likely the reason that Snowden chose to reveal much of his story to Greenwald (although he also disclosed a lot of it to Barton Gellman at the Washington Post, of course, a fact that Gregory didn’t mention while he was grilling Greenwald about his involvement and the potential repercussions).
There are obvious risks to Greenwald’s position as an advocate of leaks and whistle-blowers like Snowden and Bradley Manning: among them are the possibility that journalists who take this kind of approach could become too close to a topic, and could avoid asking hard questions of their sources. But at the same time, the level of transparency that Greenwald engages in when it comes to his views on these topics arguably has its own value — and it is a lot easier to see that clearly in the Guardian writer’s work than it is in the typical “objective” report in a newspaper like the New York Times.
Someone said recently that journalism has become something you do rather than something people are, and I think that has a lot of truth to it. What Glenn Greenwald has done and is doing definitely falls into the journalistic tradition, whatever we choose to call it — and denying him the status of journalist has some potentially frightening implications that I don’t think we should treat lightly.