Wondering why Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark has been seen in a neck brace lately? Wark is far from the first TV journalist whose head has been left spinning by Glenn Greenwald, yet they never seem to learn.
It’s the routine-like nature of Greenwald’s encounters that’s most engrossing; they never get boring not only despite their predictable patterns but largely because the formula itself is evidence of one of his favorite and most important points: What hope accountability when journalists are more interested in and passionate about policing dissent than pursing it?
Here’s how it goes.
Wark’s worst question – “how can you be sure your actions haven’t helped terrorists to understand they should change their tactics?” – was, in fairness, at least miles better that NBC’s parodic David Gregory’s ‘best‘: “Why shouldn’t you, Mr Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” (I’m paraphrasing Wark’s but, I promise you, not Gregory’s. Min: 1:10.)
Since Edward Snowdon’s revelations about industrial-scale, unauthorized, unaccountable (FISA? Wise up), and indefensible Government spying on its own citizens and millions more from around the world, including – despite initial denials – accessing message content, Greenwald is regularly interviewed on rampantly unaccountable government power (including his own role in revealing it).
For once, the style adopted by most of his interviewers represents an almost equally substantive and instructive part of the story.
Many of Greenwald’s journalistic colleagues clearly despise the guy. Their questions are much more of the “do you know what you have done; what damage you’ve caused?!” variety than attempts to discuss what he’s helped reveal: terrifying, rapidly growing, and increasingly ruthless state behavior that makes a mockery of a host of US Constitutional rights and, as we should thank Brazilian Prime Minsiter Dilma for reminding us, various international treaties.
By scolding Greenwald as though he gatecrashed the party without reading the rules, and right at the moment when his own investigative reporting represents journalism at its very best, his disgruntled colleagues only help prove his broader point: unaccountable state power is only partly explained by the designs of obscure state employees; a full understanding of how we arrived here must also include the failure of the Fourth Estate; specifically the cozy, lazy, and insufferably credulous and deferential approach adopted by too many journalists.
Greenwald’s own journalistic blind spot, in my view (and I’ve enjoyed reading him for years, since his days at Slate), is his intolerance and near-incomprehension of any journalism that’s not stridently confrontational. Although a far from equivalent offence to the courtier-style he regularly dismantles, for anyone taking his template as an ideal for journalists, this is one drawback in his overall approach worth highlighting.
The constant attempts by “gottcha” journalists, especially in the UK, to “catch out” elected officials working to build something too often breeds less an informed public as an apathetic and cynical one. Sure, the petty, small-minded vindictiveness Alasdair Campbell has riled against deserves no place in the stable of civic minded cynicism advocated by Greenwald as a precondition for any journalism worth the name. Nonetheless, to be cynical not simply about the reality of power in the world, but also about the very nature and potential of power, is a recipe for undermining public service per se and treating the actions of all senior officials as inherently suspicious, regardless of context.
That said, though there are other choices on the spectrum, who wouldn’t prefer Greenwald’s ideal of a consistently hostile and suspicious press to the current alternative, a lamely compliant press office for the powerful (and against their critics). If you consider the characterization less than reasonable, don’t take his word for it, just listen to Ms. Wark.
Taxi for Kirsty.
Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.