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Glenn Greenwald and NY Times' Bill Keller Do Battle Over the Hidden Bias in Corporate News

Greenwald plans to stand up to authority and "throw out all the old rules."
 
 
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Editor's Note: Former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston interviewed Greenwald for  Newsweek in an interview filled with powerful quotes and insights about the future of media in a digital era. "Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-global headline for his reporting on leaked NSA documents, says there is about to be a revolution that will radically change how news organizations cover governments and other big institutions." 

Writes Johnston:

The change, he insists, is inevitable because of the pervasiveness of digital content, which has already remade the global economy by allowing instant access to vast troves of information. “Government and businesses cannot function without enormous amounts of data, and many people have to have access to that data,” Greenwald says, adding that it only takes one person with access and an assaulted conscience to leak, no matter what controls are in place.

The far-ranging interview concluded on the central tenet of what motivates Greenwald to do investigative journalism: "The authoritarian response that at its core says when someone in power decrees something is secret we have to quiver in deference, and to challenge that decree is somehow a moral and legal crime. I reject that," Greenwald told Johnston. "My nature is that when I see abuses of power, I want to expose those abuses.” 

Earlier this month Greenwald announced he was joining a new journalistic venture, backed by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who has promised to invest $250 million and to “throw out all the old rules.” That news item and David Cay Johnston's interview caught the eye of Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of T he New York Times, now an occasionaly columnist for its op-ed pages, who invited Greenwald to participate in an exange on similar topics. What follows are some of the more important parts of their exchange, which can be read in full here

Keller: Dear Glenn,

We come at journalism from different traditions. I’ve spent a life working at newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting, that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves unless they relocate (as I have done) to the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion. You come from a more activist tradition — first as a lawyer, then as a blogger and columnist, and soon as part of a new, independent journalistic venture financed by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Your writing proceeds from a clearly stated point of view.

In a  post on Reuters this summer, media critic Jack Shafer celebrated the tradition of partisan journalism — “From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald” — and contrasted it with what he called “the corporatist ideal.” He didn’t explain the phrase, but I don’t think he meant it in a nice way. Henry Farrell, who blogs for The Washington Post,  wrote more recently that publications like The New York Times and The Guardian “have political relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing (and hence validating) certain kinds of information,” and he suggested that your new project with Omidyar would represent a welcome escape from such relationships.

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of, too, revelations from Watergate to torture and secret prisons to the malfeasance of the financial industry, and including some pre-Snowden revelations about the N.S.A.’s abuse of its authority. Those are highlights that leap to mind, but you’ll find examples in just about every day’s report. Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible. The mainstream press has had its failures — episodes of credulousness, false equivalency, sensationalism and inattention — for which we have been deservedly flogged. I expect you’ll say, not flogged enough. So I pass you the lash.

 
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