Is Glenn Greenwald the future of news?: A debate between Bill Keller, former executive editor of the NY Times (and current opinion writer), and Glenn Greenwald, the opinion writer/journalist who, among other things, recently reported the NSA scoops. The debate is on objectivity and the future of journalism. Available at the link above.
Greenwald’s argument, more than Keller’s, seeks to exploit the important truism that journalism is made and consumed by individuals who are shaped by their surroundings, values, and interests; the view being that the act of journalism, and the act of reading journalism, are subjective, not objective, enterprises. Journalists, as everyone knows, are not robots of “impartiality”; they have contexts that create them, mold them, respond to them. Because Greenwald better acknowledges the truism, his case rests on firmer theoretical ground than Keller’s. Overall, I find Greenwald’s debate performance to be both successful and unsuccessful. He has succeeded in further delegitimating the objectivity of Keller and what he is seen as representing. But Greenwald has failed to make progress toward an alternative definition of objectivity underlying his own knowledge.
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The statement that people are shaped by context is only boring if it remains merely acknowledged; it must be explored. Subjective, activist, partisan, opinion journalists have biases; indeed, Greenwald’s point is that everyone by definition is biased. Keller fails by trying to hide his bias, Greenwald argues.
If all journalists have biases, what kinds of biases does Greenwald have?
What does Greenwald think his biases are?
In what ways does Greenwald think his biases impact his journalism?
Here’s one inherent source of bias: opinion journalists experience the need to reproduce audiences. If they do not get clicks, they do not exist. Given this imperative, they ask: What do my audiences like, what would they follow, what do they expect? And performers must spend time at least having a theory of the answers. This audience can be readership, a segment of readership, an editor, a publisher. Indeed, expectation is the key word. Would Greenwald reproduce a sustainable audience if he were to consistently cross his audience’s expectation, by surprising them with, say, a pragmatic position identifying a case in which NSA spying were in fact in his audience’s interests? Possibly. But it’s a gamble. Instead, Greenwald produces something tending more toward absolutism: all spying is wrong. (Quickly, note that Greenwald did not get an audience overnight. He has been a popular blogger for years.) He is, in short, a radical, but there is an aspect of conformity in what he does. He is a performer, working an audience, at least to some extent. I think the extent is quite great. Importantly, so does Greenwald. This relationship between performer and audience is not unnatural, but it cannot be ignored.
For both Greenwald and Keller, the relationship came down to trust. Can audiences trust the performances put forth by journalists? On the question of ‘trust,’ Greenwald believes he has lots of room to operate against his opponent, and he uses it. He brings up the NY Times sitting on the original NSA story back in 2004. He brings up the pro-Iraq war coverage in 2002 and 2003. Indeed. Greenwald is not being unfair here. Without doubt these were untrustworthy episodes in “objective” American journalism. News was covered up. News was distorted. Both consciously and unconsciously.
But can Greenwald be trusted? My framework for answering this question is this: Once an expert has expressed his or her opinion on a given subject, the most important question that an expert can ask him or herself is: under what conditions would the opposite of my current opinion become more tenable to me?
Finding and explaining the conditions under which a current opinion could change — this is to me the basis of objectivity. Under this framework, I fail to see Greenwaldian progress on the question of objectivity. When he says—
I personally think honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism
—he makes a rather weak stab at the question. It is not enough to disclose subjectivities. One must interrogate these subjectivities, over and over. Any legitimate piece of intelligence depends on this interrogation. What would make me wrong? What would being right look like under alternative scenarios? Demanding of yourself:
Why am I wrong? How am I wrong? What would being wrong look like? Under what circumstances can I envision being wrong? Under what conditions would I change my mind?
In my observation, Greenwald does not engage these kinds of questions.
I am happy Greenwald’s journalism exists. But does he make journalism more trustworthy? I don’t think so. I think he brings a lawyerly, win-the-case style to journalism. I think objectivity requires a scientific, question-the-results-at-all-costs set of habits.
In human history, these habits struggle to find political audiences. But they find ways to emerge nonetheless.