On Meet the Press Sunday, host David Gregory said the question, “who is a journalist?” was raised by Glenn Greenwald’s dealings with Edward Snowden, the 30 year-old American who is currently on the run from the government after leaking classified information. Gregory asked:
To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movement, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald be charged with a crime?
Greenwald objected to this: during the show, after the show on Twitter, and on other shows the same day. On Meet the Press (transcript) he said:
I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in anyway… [snip] If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal.
On Twitter he said: “Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?” Gregory replied to that tweet on the same NBC program Greenwald had just left, a ricochet that tells us something is at stake here.
This is the problem, for somebody who claims that he’s a journalist, who would object to a journalist raising questions, which is not actually embracing any particular point of view. And that’s part of the tactics of the debate here when, in fact, lawmakers have questioned him. There’s a question about his role in this, The Guardian’s role in all of this. It is actually part of the debate, rather than going after the questioner, he could take on the issues.
Gregory told us he had no view of the matter to advance (“I’m not embracing anything…”) he was just doing his job: asking hard questions, some of which get uncomfortable for the guest. Chuck Todd of NBC agreed that Greenwald should explain how “involved” he was with the leaker, Edward Snowden. “Did he have a role beyond being a receiver for this information?”
Greenwald continued the exchange on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz:
KURTZ: My time is short. I have to ask you whether you’re concerned, if public opinion and the media environment turns against Ed Snowden, whether you as somebody who’s worked closely with him will be tarred almost as a kind of co-conspirator.
GREENWALD: Well, the Obama administration has flirted with that theory with other reporters, David Gregory all but endorsed it when I gave him an interview with him earlier on “Meet the Press.”
So, sure, it’s an issue. But it’s not going to constrain me or deter me in any way. I believe in the First Amendment and the freedom of the press guarantee in it.
I have some notes and comments on what happened here, which I will update as debate on the episode continues. But first, watch this clip of the June 23rd Meet the Press interview (via Crooks and Liars.) If you want to know what I think, meet me on the other side…
1. Whether Glenn Greenwald will and should be charged with a crime is fair game to ask anyone, including Greenwald. The approach other interviewers have used most often is to ask Greenwald if he’s worried about prosecution. There are other ways to do it. I see nothing wrong with the question. But Gregory went beyond that, as I will try to show.
2. That certain steps the government might take to prevent the escape of its secrets would criminalize normal practice in journalism is also worth asking about. On air and on Twitter, Greenwald tried to insert as context McClatchy’s latest report:
Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor exposed the secret collection of Americans’ phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions…
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.
3. Gregory decided to push the premise of a possible prosecution of Glenn Greenwald. Leaving behind “are you worried that the government will come after you?” he also passed over:
Snowdon knows he committed a crime by releasing classified material. He says he did it to alert the public to an abuse of power.You’re trying to alert the public to what you see as an abuse of power. Are you also defying the law to make it happen?
The point is: there are ways to challenge Greenwald and ask him about the law that do not involve…
4. David Gregory’s phrase: To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden… renders the situation in a threatening way. His premise packs a punch. For the criminalization of journalism is most likely to happen when normal relationships with sources get called “aiding and abetting” by the state. That’s why so many journalists flipped out when similar language was used in a government affidavit about James Rosen, the Fox News reporter who was investigated in a separate leak case.
5. “He seeded his question with a veiled accusation of federal criminal wrongdoing, very much in the tradition of ‘how long have you been beating your wife.'” That’s how Erik Wemple of the Washington Post put it in his assessment of the same incident. “Mr. Gregory may have thought he was just being provocative, but if you tease apart his inquiry, it suggests there might be something criminal in reporting out important information from a controversial source,” wrote David Carr in the New York Times.
6. Gregory’s attempts to separate Greenwald from normal practice matter. Greenwald is “somebody who claims that he’s a journalist,” Gregory said. (Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.) What we know is that Glenn is a polemicist, prosecutor for a point of view. “The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing,” he told Greenwald. “What is journalism?” is involved here, he said to Republican political consultant and NBC contributor Mike Murphy. (Murphy agreed.) Why did Gregory turn his table on Meet the Press into a “who’s a journalist” seminar if he wasn’t trying to place Greenwald outside the club?
7. And that is why I wrote my June 13 post, Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. Neither dominates. Whether journalists with a source inside the government have a clear POV or claim “no-POV, just the news,” whether they are called columnists or reporters by their employers, whether they are doing a documentary to rouse public opinion or a news story for a wire service– these are considerations irrelevant to any claim on membership in the press and its protections.
8. Former general counsel to the NSA and Bush Admninistration official Stewart Baker has a blog, at which he wonders whether Barton Gellman of the Washington Post – Snowden also went to him – “has slipped from journalist to advocate.” In prosecuting leaks the government is supposed to take special precautions around a journalist. But an advocate? Maybe not so much. You see it matters what you call these people. It matters when you try to divide them from “real” journalism. I’m not sure David Gregory understands that.
9. From what I can tell (and we cannot see fully into this from the outside) in interacting with Edward Snowden, the Guardian have handled their source in a way that is fundamentally similar to the Washington Post’s handling of Snowden. And on “activity protected by the First Amendment” grounds, I see no difference between Greenwald’s Snowden-derived journalism and Gellman’s Snowden-derived journalism. David Gregory didn’t present any evidence for such a difference. In fact he said nothing about Gellman and the Post “aiding and abetting.” Why?
10. David Gregory does not know it, but journalism with a point of view, journalism in the style that calls for viewlessness, and advocacy journalism can all deliver good work in the imperfect art of source-driven reportage and commentary. They can all be criticized, too: for hyping the story, falling in love with their sources or failing to apply doubt where needed– Greenwald and Gellman and their colleagues included. This is normal debate. “To the extent that you have aided and abetted…” is not. It suggests transgression against professional norms. But on what grounds? Gregory didn’t try to establish any. That’s one thing that made his intervention so odd.
11. Barton Gellman made an important point in defending himself against Stewart Baker’s criticism. In a sense I am an advocate, he said. But… “What @stewartbaker overlooks is that my advocacy is for open debate of secret powers. That’s what journalists do.” This is not the View from Nowhere. This is acknowledging that journalists are actors too.
12. “There’s a question about his role in this, The Guardian’s role in all of this…” is David Gregory gesturing toward an argument he apparently wants to make for why Greenwald and The Guardian are beyond the pale. But we never find out what they have done to deserve this placement. Because that’s not how he sees himself: as a man mounting arguments on Meet the Press. Instead he just asks the questions that have become necessary to ask because people are asking them. The more he relies on tautologies like this, the weaker he sounds.
13. I agree with Ben Smith of Buzzfeed: You don’t have to like Edward Snowden– or Glenn Greenwald, for that matter. While it’s natural to focus on the moral standing of the source, the story stands or falls on other grounds:
Snowden’s personal story is interesting only because the new details he revealed are so much more interesting. We know substantially more about domestic surveillance than we did, thanks largely to stories and documents printed by The Guardian. They would have been just as revelatory without Snowden’s name on them. The shakeout has produced more revelatory reporting, notably this new McClatchy piece on the way in which President Obama’s obsession with leaks has manifested itself in the bureaucracy with a new “Insider Threat Program.”
14. True: we know substantially more than we did about the surveillance state. Also true: the public debate we did not have in 2010 after the Washington Post’s massive reporting project, Top Secret America, we are having now. This is the main reason I support what The Guardian and the Washington Post are doing, although I recognize that their actions (and Snowden’s) are going to generate a lot of pushback.
15. Glenn Greenwald is going to face more and more questions about his motives and methods as the Snowden story divides the country and the press. He might as well prepare for it, and try to accept these encounters with good humor when he can.
16. As statements like this one indicate, I don’t think Greenwald cares whether he is invited back on Meet the Press. There’s something to be said for that in a talk show guest.
17. Andrew Sullivan starts the critique of Gregory’s performance farther back.
Notice that Gregory calls Greenwald a “polemicist” – not a journalist. The difference, I presume, is that polemicists actually make people in power uncomfortable. Journalists simply do their best to get chummy with them in order to get exclusive tidbits that the powerful want you to know.
Second: ask yourself if David Gregory ever asked a similar question of people in government with real power, e.g. Dick Cheney et al. Did he ever ask them why they shouldn’t go to jail for committing documented war crimes under the Geneva Conventions? Nah.
Sullivan concludes: “At some point the entire career structure of Washington journalism – the kind of thing that makes David Gregory this prominent – needs to be scrapped and started over. And then you realize that it already has.”
18. “Does David Gregory think he should be charged with a crime for talking to sources, asking questions about classified information, and then reporting what he learned?” Because he’s done exactly that, by his own account. See Trevor Trimm’s analysis at Freedom of the Press Foundation blog. (Greenwald is a co-founder of the foundation.)
June 25-29, 2013.
19. “From behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.” That’s from Benjamin Wheeler’s column in the Los Angeles Times. It mentions, absorbs and extends my analysis in this post. “Lately, large institutions of viewless journalism have been throwing around their weight to discredit point-of-view journalists with subversive positions. And, in the tradition of viewless journalism, they’ve been doing it without announcing their stance.” I have almost never seen that point made in the mainstream press.
20. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post returns with a deep dive: What would it take to nail Glenn Greenwald under the Espionage Act? His conclusion:
Reading through the opinions and scholarly work on the Espionage Act reveals how carefully this country’s finest legal minds have sought to protect press freedoms vis-a-vis our precious national security interests. Stunning to behold how carelessly some commentators would trample it all.
21. Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and CNBC had to apologize for his carelessness in saying on TV that he would “almost” like to arrest Greenwald for what he’s done. (Video here.) Sorkin’s contrition is real and clearly expressed. Good for him. One thing he did not explain is what he actually meant, if he didn’t really mean that Glenn should be arrested. On Twitter he told Greenwald: “my point was about the role of advocacy journalism & some misimpressions re: prism program as result of reports.” It’s pretty easy to see what “misimpressions re: prism” refers to: this critique. But look at the other phrase: the “role of advocacy journalism.” It sure sounds like he was trading in the dangerous idea that a journalist with a point of view loses the protections that a viewless journalist has. That is dead wrong about the law, and insidious for other reasons. Which is why I asked him to clarify on Twitter.
You’d “almost arrest” him for what reason? Does advocacy journalism turn an almost into a legitimate arrest?
No reply yet.
22. Frank Rich says it’s time for NBC to move David Gregory to The Today Show, “where he can speak truth to power by grilling Paula Deen.”
23. It’s worth recalling that David Gregory is a loud and proud denialist about the biggest and most consequential screw-up in American journalism during his watch: the failure to uncover a faulty case for war in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2008 he said on MSNBC: “I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us in the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.” In 2009 he said on the Colbert Report that there was no fall down, people just say that because they’re ideological hacks.
I actually do think that the right questions were asked, and I think — this criticism is certainly out there of the press corps, and I tried to be thoughtful about it, reflective about it, but I do think the right questions were asked, and I think people view our job through their own ideological prism, and they’ve made some judgments along those lines.
David Gregory’s denialism on Iraq coverage was a warning to NBC News that they failed to heed. They knew about it before they gave him Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. It indicated an inability to learn from criticism and get outside one’s clubby world of press room pals.
24. So far this week, after three days of getting ripped by his peers for what he did on Meet the Press, Gregory has made no public statement or even indicated that he’s listening. This does not meet the standard any longer, even for media stars. In the New York Times newsroom there’s no bigger star than Andrew Ross Sorkin, and he apologized the next day for some dumb things he said about arresting Greenwald. For someone like Jake Tapper of CNN, not responding to such a wave of criticism would be unthinkable. This is another reason David Gregory belongs on the Today Show, grilling salmon with some celebrity chef.
25. I somehow missed this first time around: Paul Farhi in the Washington Post: On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter? It appeared on the same morning as David Gregory’s interview with Greenwald, and it tracks closely with his questioning. This is speculation, but I wonder if Farhi gave Gregory a misplaced confidence that the consensus view in the press was rapidly becoming “Greenwald: not a journalist.” It’s possible. Gregory has a deeply conventional mind, to which Farhi’s “he’s not one of us” frame would appeal. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone has a good time mocking Farhi and ripping into Andrew Sorkin. Taibbi’s take on the journalism issues is similar to mine in Politics: some / Politics: none. But he’s far more entertaining and blunt.
26. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine spells out some of what David Gregory may have been feeling about Greenwald: He’s really a lot like Ralph Nader. The implication is that he argues like a lawyer in an adversarial proceeding, not a journalist trying to be informative. “You take a side, assume the other side is lying, and prosecute your side full tilt. It’s not your job to account for evidence that undermines your case — it’s your adversary’s job to point that out,” Chait writes. Also: “Nader and Greenwald believe their analysis not only completely correct, but so obviously correct that the only motivation one could have to disagree is corruption.”
27. Greenwald is a strong defender of whistleblowers and a strong opponent of the secrecy regime in the surveillance state. Under Chait’s analysis, we would expect him to be dismissive in scorched earth fashion of anyone who doubts that whistleblowers do good. But at around 44:05 in this video, he says he can understand why ordinary Americans have ambivalence about whistleblowers. “Some people think that security is more important, or that secrecy should be decided by democratically-elected officials and not by individual whistleblowers.” I get that, he says. What he does not get is professional journalists who identify with the secret-keepers more than the whistleblowers. For them, it’s the scorched earth Greenwald. Doesn’t this indicate the facility to make distinctions and see good-faith arguments on the other side that Chait says are completely absent in Greenwald’s style?