Full monty journalism - Assange, Greenwald and Snowden

Liberal journalism has always depended on leaks. But changes in technology combined with recent events have opened up a new schism in how journalists approach the state and notions of objectivity.

John Lloyd
13 August 2014

Liberal journalism—that is, journalism which has an ethic, if not always a practice, of independence, of adherence to the facts and a discipline of checking—has always depended on leaks. Leaking is as old as journalism: it is any information which is not officially authorised or available because the proceedings described in a report are open to the press – like shareholders’ meetings, or parliaments, or trade union conferences.

In the 2010s, leaking has become identified with the downloading and publishing of huge quantities of confidential files, mostly held by the US State Department, leaked by Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning to Wikileaks (2010); and the US National Security Agency, leaked by Edward Snowden to Glen Greenwald and others ( 2013).  These mass leaks, and especially the latter, propose a new relationship between journalism and the state.

The publication of material which journalism had obtained below the official or corporate radars—which included investigative journalism—had evolved a series of protocols and manoeuvres  which depended largely on personal understandings, links and stated or unstated deals. The mass leaking of the 2010s, by contrast  depends on a mixture of computer and Net technology and a root and branch radicalism which is in part derived from the experience of Net life itself.

Snowden, in both his private and professional life, was as much a creature of the Net as Manning and Assange. In his The Snowden Files (2014), the Guardian writer Luke Harding quotes his colleague, Ewan McCaskill, appointed by the Guardian to contact Snowden, with Greenwald and the film-maker Laura Poitras, in Hong Kong, as saying after a few meetings with Snowden that ‘he’s comfortable with computers. That’s his world. Later in the book, Harding quotes a Hong Kong lawyer whom Snowden consulted, Albert Ho, as telling the New York Times that ‘he didn’t go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was ok because he had his computer. If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be intolerable’.

The  major recipient of the leaks, Glen Greenwald, was different. He was a strongly polemical blogger, concentrating on issues of national security – the reason why Snowden singled him out, together with Poitras and the Washington Post investigative reporter Barton Gellman.

Greenwald has been much more explicit in seeing journalism as in permanent opposition to political, and to a much lesser extent corporate, power, and in arguing that it should eschew any pretence at objectivity. Greenwald and Chris Blackhurst, the editor-in-chief of the Independent titles in the UK, had an exchange on the issue in October 2013. Blackhurst, while making many genuflections to the importance of whistleblowers, said he would not publish this kind of material because he could ‘not get wound up’ about the fact ‘that the security services monitor emails and phone calls, and use internet searches to track down terrorists and would-be terrorists’. What is it, he asked, ‘that the NSA and GCHQ are doing that is so profoundly terrible?’ He added that he did not publish the material that the paper did get from the Snowden files – because the government had asked him not to, on grounds of national security.

Greenwald replied in white-hot mode in the Guardian. Blackhurst, ‘a career journalist’, had, in obeying the state’s request not to publish, ‘perfectly encapsulate[ed] the death spiral of large journalistic outlets’. Blackhurst was ‘subservient, obsequious’; he was ‘a good journalistic servant’ (of the UK state): ‘What Blackhurst is revealing here is indeed a predominant mindset among many in the media class. Journalists should not disobey the dictates of those in power… It does not surprise me that authoritarian factions, including (especially) establishment journalists, prefer that none of this reporting and debate happened and that we all instead remained blissfully ignorant about it. But it does still surprise me when people calling themselves "journalists" openly admit to thinking this way. But when they do so, they do us a service, as it lays so vividly bare just how wide the gap is between the claimed function of establishment journalists and the actual role they fulfil’.

Greenwald believes that most journalism and most journalists (‘establishment’ or ‘career’) have either gone, or more likely have always been, soft – in the sense that they are amenable to the blandishments and commands of the state and of corporate power, and have lost or never had a sense of journalism as in permanent opposition to these powers.

In a dialogue with Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times, in October 2013, Greenwald endorsed the need for ‘strong, highly factual, aggressive adversarial journalism’, and dismissed ‘this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring…[it] rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?’ 

Keller replied that ‘I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely’.

Early in 2014, Greenwald – having broken off his ties with the Guardian, for which he had written regularly – joined a new creation, First Look Media, founded by the owner and founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, already owner of a website, the Honolulu Civil Beat, which covers civic affairs in Hawaii. The New York University journalism academic and commentator on the media, Jay Rosen, wrote in October 2013 that Omidyar – with whom he had talked – had been strongly attracted to Greenwald’s journalism as the revelations poured out. He met with Greenwald, and learned that he, with Poitras and The Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill, had decided to set up their own news organisation: Omidyar persuaded them to ‘join forces’ with him, and The Intercept – the name came later – was born.

Rosen wrote that ‘Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity… will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand’.

With Greenwald at its centre, Omidyar pledged $250m to build up The Intercept as an online investigative news site specialising in security and privacy issues: other well-known names were hired, including, as editor-in-chief, John Cook, who had run the Gawker site. For the first months of its operation, its main output was twofold: more stories crafted from Snowden’s files, and blog posts by Greenwald. Perhaps worried by the hostile messages from readers disappointed that the site hosted so little, Cook wrote in a 14 April message on the site that most of the basic questions had ‘not been worked out’ and that, until they were, the output would remain largely NSA revelations and Greenwald’s opinions.

There is no telling how The Intercept –the first medium dedicated to the vision of Assange, Snowden and Greenwald of what journalism should now be – will fare. It seems, at the time of writing (early July 2014) there are teething troubles: for the executive editor to declare that basic questions had ‘not been worked out’ before the launch betrays at least haste, if not incoherence and divisions as to the purpose and conduct of the site, but the details are presently kept more secret than the files at the NSA proved to be.

The larger question is for journalism. The practice of liberal journalism, certainly since the sixties, has been to live in a tension between, on the one hand, support for democratic practice and recognition that politicians at every level are (mainly) popularly elected and have the right to govern throughout a mandate – and, on the other, to provide a forum for criticism of their programmes and governing practice, to provide a record of their decisions and to investigate and reveal their failures, their deceits and their corruptions. The former has weakened, and the latter has become stronger over the decades: but the US practice, which has remained the standard till now, has retained that framework.

The Assange-Snowden-Greenwald (many others are involved) assault on that standard has already won some ground. The new editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, had when he was editor of the Los Angeles Times (2005-2007) killed a story, brought to the paper in 2006 by an AT&T technician, Mark Klein, about NSA ‘surveillance rooms’ being installed in AT&T centres across the country. Baquet decided not to run it after talking to administration officials, but said that the conversation did not materially affect his decision.

When Baquet was appointed New York Times editor in May 2014, Greenwald, recalling the AT&T affair, commented in the Huffington Post that the new editor ‘does have a really disturbing history of practicing this form of journalism that is incredibly subservient to the American National security state, and if his past record and his past actions and statements are anything to go by, I think it signals that the New York Times is going to continue to descend downward into this sort of journalism that is very neutered and far too close to the very political factions that it's supposed to exercise oversight over’.

However, when Baquet, in an interview in June on National Public Radio, said that ‘I am much, much, much more sceptical of the government’s entreaties not to publish today than I was ever before’, Greenwald used a piece on his new medium, The Intercept, to pat the new editor on the head for his ‘epiphany’ on the administration’s exaggerations of the danger of publishing secret information, stating that it is ‘long overdue, but better late than never. Let us hope that it signals an actual change in behaviour’.

At the very least, the new approach takes the tension between governments and the news media to a higher level. If leaking becomes more common (it is much easier in the Net age, though probably also easier to detect), if the view taken is that of Julian Assange, that anything less than maximum exposure is betraying the future of freedom in the world,  and if aggressive reporting of the kind Greenwald champions, where government is met with total distrust, then journalism changes. That is not to say it all will: but its cutting edge has for decades been the journalism of revelation. Where the output of investigative journalism is much more full and the data revealed subject to a radical and hostile gloss, based on the belief that governments in major states are inherently or at least potentially oppressive, then we are in a new era, for politics as for journalism.


This article is part of the Liberalism and the Media strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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