June 27, 2013

( Kin Cheung / The Associated Press)

Guardian journalist and National Security Agency scooper Glenn Greenwald gave his audience a little advance notice that the New York Daily News and the New York Times were digging into some uncomfortable portions of his past. In a defiant posting, Greenwald attempted to get ahead of the stories:

I received an email last night from a reporter at the New York Daily News informing me that he had been “reviewing some old lawsuits” in which I was involved – “old” as in: more than a decade ago – and that “the paper wants to do a story on this for tomorrow”. He asked that I call him right away to discuss this, apologizing for the very small window he gave me to comment.

Upon calling him, I learned that he had somehow discovered two events from my past. The first was my 2002-04 participation in a multi-member LLC that had an interest in numerous businesses, including the distribution of adult videos. I was bought out of that company by my partners roughly nine years ago.

Interest in his past comes as no surprise to Greenwald:

When I made the choice to report aggressively on top-secret NSA programs, I knew that I would inevitably be the target of all sorts of personal attacks and smears. You don’t challenge the most powerful state on earth and expect to do so without being attacked. As a superb Guardian editorial noted today: “Those who leak official information will often be denounced, prosecuted or smeared. The more serious the leak, the fiercer the pursuit and the greater the punishment.”

His piece concluded with this bit:

If journalists really believe that, in response to the reporting I’m doing, these distractions about my past and personal life are a productive way to spend their time, then so be it.

None of that – or anything else – will detain me even for an instant in continuing to report on what the NSA is doing in the dark.

Five points here:

1) Greenwald did the New York Daily News a favor. Not long after Greenwald dropped his preemptive strike, the New York Daily News published its look-back at his time in New York. The treatment offered a pat-down of the journalist’s previous exploits as a practicing lawyer, including the part about the porn stuff. Had Greenwald not alerted the Erik Wemple Blog to the story, we might have missed it.

2) When he lived in New York City, Greenwald got into a beef with his condo board because he had a dog — named Uli — that was allegedly “bigger than building by-laws allowed.” No further comment on this one.

3) The New York Daily News story actually did have some information of consequence. It reports: “The New York County Clerk’s office shows Greenwald has $126,000 in open judgments and liens against him dating to 2000, including a $21,000 from the state Tax Department and the city Department of Finance.” It also speaks of an $85,000 IRS lien. Greenwald tells the New York Daily News that he’s “caught up” on the New York obligations and is negotiating “payment plans” with the IRS. In his preemptive posting, Greenwald states that the New York Times had also expressed interest in this part of his past.

4) Greenwald is gaining enemies. The timing of the calls from New York-based media outlets raises all kinds of possibilities, one of which Reuters media critic Jack Shafer poked at last night:

 

Perhaps the David Gregory Fan Club.

5) Greenwald’s accounting for the “smears” of his critics is a bit overwrought. Indeed, some of the fierce counterattacks that Greenwald has sustained this month stem from his work in challenging power. A complete accounting, though, must consider that Greenwald has worked aggressively across various media platforms to promote his stories and annotate them with his interpretations. With each appearance on CNN or NBC News, he becomes a more worthy topic of biographical inquiry. His stiff spine, prickly and principled answers to questions and single-mindedness about governmental privacy intrusions, after all, only invite journalistic curiosity. Media appearances beget media attention.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.