The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, breaker of stories on the National Security Agency (NSA), recently made the following declaration to the New York Times’s David Carr about his approach to his work: “All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists.”
The activist side of Greenwald, writes Carr, has emerged in his frequent media appearances over the past several weeks. “He has been everywhere on television taking on his critics, which seems more like a campaign than a discussion of the story he covered,” notes Carr.
From CNN to NBC News to Fox News, Greenwald has indeed given the impression of a guy whose policy is to reject no media requests. And once the cameras roll, Greenwald shows those qualities that inspire extreme admiration or extreme disdain among viewers. In an interview this week with Fox News’s Eric Bolling, for example, Greenwald said, “I think what the Obama administration wants and has been trying to establish for the last almost five years now, with the unprecedented war on whistleblowers that it is waging, is to make it so that everybody is petrified of coming forward with information about what our political officials are doing in the dark that is deceitful, illegal or corrupt.”
Those words are jarring to anyone familiar with the speech patterns of big-time journalists interviewed on television shows about their scoops. Had Greenwald been from the New York Times or NBC News, he would have coded the message above in middleoftheroadese — something like the following: “The record shows that the Obama administration has taken an aggressive approach toward those who leak national-security information, and, frankly, critics are split on whether that’s a necessary step for the protection of national security or whether it will limit press freedoms in the United States. It’ll be interesting to see how the Edward Snowden case unfolds.”
Serving as a talking head in reference to his own stories has boosted Greenwald’s profile to the point that one commentator has urged the cable news networks to sign him to an exclusive contract. It has also led to greater public curiosity about Greenwald, prompting a look into some less-glorious dimensions of his past.
All the interviewing, moreover, has accomplished the more worthy objective of discrediting a widespread practice in the media industry of declining comment on reportorial methods. In response to various questions going back to the days just after his first NSA stories, Greenwald has delivered a remarkable amount of disclosures about how he got the story, how he executed it and how he plans to continue pursuing it. It helps that Greenwald’s source voluntarily outed himself, an element of sunlight that has enabled him to hold forth on reporting methods. Even so, take a look at the level of disclosure in this New York Times piece or this story by my colleague Greg Sargent of The Post. (Barton Gellman, who has worked the Snowden beat for The Post, wrote an account of his interactions with his source).
The spirit of openness counters an ever-more-prevalent spirit of silence among media outlets vis-a-vis their journalistic product. Not all of them, to be sure, clam up when asked about their work. But take it from a fellow who spends a lot of time pursuing information about how scoops are secured, how mistakes happen and how business models are executed: There are a lot of no-comments and unreturned e-mail messages in this line of work. The barriers are particularly high among television properties, but they are platform-agnostic. The Erik Wemple Blog’s favorite stiff-arm came from Reuters back in October 2011. A Reuters reporter had shown noteworthy discipline and restraint in a piece about Mitt Romney, and the Erik Wemple Blog wanted to get the story behind the story. In the process, we received three no-comments.
A recent story in Der Spiegel magazine exposed how the NSA has been snooping on Europeans. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone asked the outlet about the scoop’s origins and received a we-don’t-talk-about-sources response. In the same piece, Greenwald is quoted addressing how Snowden dealt with media outlets vis-a-vis document distribution.
Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of the Guardian U.S., says that releasing information about the news-gathering process is part of the paper’s “show your working” ideology. (That’s a variation on the stateside mathematics-instruction term “show your work”). “In the case of Glenn and this story,” says Gibson, “it’s unfolding in a public approach and that ties in with the way the Guardian works.” One of the reasons that big swatches of the public distrusts the media, says Gibson, is that it doesn’t “show its working” often enough. “You hold an important public role and hiding how you do it in the cupboards doesn’t help,” says the editor. “Explaining methodology will help increase trust in the media.”