Prioritizing Personalities Over a Free Press

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Glenn Greenwald’s journalism is the way it provokes various people who think of themselves as journalists to reveal their actual priorities. I wrote about this at length last week in a response to Michael Kinsley’s non-review review of Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State, arguing that Kinsley had done the world a service by behaving in exactly the servile, establishment-revering manner Greenwald chronicles in the book.

But even more fascinating and revealing than Kinsley’s own demand — that when it comes to what the press should publish, "that decision must ultimately be made by the government,” and that journalists who don’t toe the government line might need to be “locked up" — has been the reaction of Kinsley’s peers. Here are a few I’ve come across:

Jonathan Alter, MSNBC

If u missed great Kinsley review of Greenwald, one of biggest jerks in journo even if partly right. @PamelaPaulNYT

— Jonathan Alter (@jonathanalter) May 26, 2014

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

Michael Kinsley deftly fillets @ggreenwald (or, as Greenwald would put it, is a corrupt tool of the state)

— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) May 22, 2014

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, Bloomberg

@jonathanalter You should also read George Packer's piece on the subject:

— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) May 26, 2014

Michael Kinsley on @ggreenwald, his book and his view of journalism. An interesting addition to the debate.

— David Gregory (@davidgregory) May 22, 2014

John Harwood, CNBC and The New York Times

if you're talking about Kinsley's piece, it was a valuable screed @DraperRobert @ggreenwald @michaelkinsley

— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) May 23, 2014

Charles Lane, The Washington Post

Intellectual mismatch of the century: Kinsley v. Greenwald

— Charles Lane (@ChuckLane1) May 22, 2014

Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek

A thoroughly refreshing takedown of the self-righteous @ggreenwald by Michael Kinsley (via @nytimesbooks)

— Alexander Nazaryan (@alexnazaryan) May 22, 2014

One notable (and potentially risky) feature of Twitter is how instantly people use it to express themselves. Often there’s little thought, little filtering, between the impulse behind a tweet and the expression in the tweet itself. So it’s fascinating to see how reflexively focused these people are on Greenwald’s personality, and how (at best) unconcerned they are about a fellow “journalist” calling for a blatantly unconstitutional system of prior restraint of the press and imprisonment of journalists. Their diction is remarkably telling: the most important thing to Alter is that he thinks Greenwald is a “jerk.” What Chait finds most relevant is that he thinks Kinsley “fillets Greenwald.” Lane is concerned only with who has the bigger intellect — Greenwald or Kinsley. The piece matters to Nazaryan because it’s a "takedown of the self-righteous Greenwald.”

Alter, by the way, is the person who suggested in a Newsweek column that it was “Time to Think About Torture.” According to Alter's values, it seems, advocating torture isn’t something that makes someone a jerk. Or, whatever it means to be a jerk, in Alter’s mind it’s a significantly more reprehensible thing than a call for America to start torturing people.

So here’s the situation. A fellow journalist — in the newspaper that once published the Pentagon Papers — calls for the government to assume ultimate decision-making authority over what the media is allowed to publish, describes another journalist as a “go-between” and “perpetrator” for his reporting, and wonders aloud whether journalists who do such reporting ought to be “locked up”… and not one of these journalists finds any of it even worthy of mention. What they do find worthy of mention is that they think Greenwald is a jerk, or self-righteous, or a sourpuss, or whatever other appellation they use when they scrunch up their noses at someone who upsets them. Even the few who don't explicitly praise Kinsley’s piece for being a personal attack on Greenwald have no problem at all with Kinsley’s call for ultimate governmental publishing authority or any of his other attacks on journalism. Goldberg merely recommends another, similar screed by George Packer. Harwood calls the piece “valuable.” David Gregory, managing in typical fashion to be both banal and sycophantic, finds the most relevant aspect of Kinsley’s call for prior restraint is that it’s “an interesting addition to the debate."

What can we deduce from this behavior? A kind of mathematical equation, which goes like this:

No matter how much any of these people — every one of whom holds himself out to the world as a journalist, every one of whom is at least chronologically an adult — cares about the First Amendment, or about a free, watchdog press, or about the notion of a fourth estate, or even about democracy itself, what they care about more is seeing someone they dislike getting called names. Maybe they care about a free press and all that a great deal. Maybe they care not at all. But however much they care, they care more about finding a way for that disliked person to get taken down a peg.

Now, it’s alarming enough to know these people have such priorities. What’s worse is that they’re so emotionally exercised by Greenwald that they don’t even seem to realize it might be a good idea — for form’s sake, if nothing else — to at least pretend to care about another journalist calling for governmental prior restraint of the press and for journalists to be “locked up." Or maybe on some level they sense they ought to pretend, but they’re so fixated on Greenwald that they’re unable to do so.

By the way, the next time someone — say, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden — tells you that women in some way lack objectivity because of their excessive “deep emotional feeling,” you can point to the behavior of some of the men examined in this post. If “deep emotional feeling” isn’t what’s occluding their priorities regarding the importance of a free press, I hate to think what is. It’s either that — or they really just don’t care.

The dynamic here is a lot like the one that revealed itself when the Pentagon cashiered out of the military scores of Arabic linguists for being gay. It’s not that the people behind these firings don’t necessarily value national security, or that they don’t want to fight terrorism, or that they don’t care if there’s another 9/11. They might care about these things a great deal. But no matter how much they might care, they care about gay cooties even more. There is no other way to interpret this data. Feeling that they had to choose between defending the nation from terrorism, and defending the military from gay cooties, they chose to put the nation at risk. Not necessarily because they didn’t care about the nation. But because they cared about gay cooties more.

The kindest word I can come up with for such a set of priorities is… neurotic. Really, the kindest.

I’ve written about some of this before, in an article called “Greenwald Derangement Syndrome,” about Jonathan Chait and others whose emotional fixations were causing them to become situationally stupid — the condition wherein an otherwise intelligent person feels so strongly about something that his emotions obstruct his ability to access his reason, rendering him functionally indistinguishable from a person who is natively stupid.

As for what causes people to fixate so intensely on Greenwald that they come to care more about his personality than they do about the Constitution, I can think of a variety of reasons. Some of them were part of an interesting discussion between Greenwald himself and Chris Hayes on Hayes’ show All In. Greenwald suggested a lot of the animosity has to do with his application to Obama of the principles he previously applied to Bush. The same liberals who cheered those principles when they were applied to a Republican find them heretical when applied to a Democrat.

I’m sure there’s a lot of that going on. But I think there’s also something else at work among journalists who are so obsessed with Greenwald that they're more concerned about his personality than they are about a free press.

Almost by definition, most establishment journalists accept an implicit framework within which they can work while still being accepted by the establishment of which they’re a part. This doesn’t mean they can’t do excellent journalism, and many of them certainly do. But for others, I suspect there’s a sense of subornment, a recognition that they’ve sold out, that they’re owned or at least rented by the people they pretend to hold to account. A recognition like this, no matter how oblique, isn’t psychologically comfortable. And the uncompromising work and aggressive deportment of someone like Greenwald acts as a kind of mirror in which these people are forced to view the most unflattering version of themselves. The admirable reaction would be to hold yourself to a higher standard and try to do better. The more common reaction is to hate the person who is causing your increased awareness of your own shortcomings.

Of course I could be wrong, but this theory would explain some of the differing reactions to Greenwald, on the one hand, and Barton Gellman, on the other. After all, Greenwald and Gellman have both covered some of the same ground and broken some huge stories based on Snowden’s whistleblowing. Indeed, both have won Polk awards, and the organizations they reported with have won Pulitzers, for their Snowden-based reporting. And yet I’ve never seen fellow journalists going after Gellman on a personal level. I’ve seen no attempts to marginalize him as an activist, a go-between, a perpetrator, etc. Certainly I’ve seen no calls for his imprisonment.

What explains the different reactions? Sure, some of it can be attributed to temperament. Gellman strikes me as having a knack for disarming people, a knack Greenwald has no apparent inclination to develop or deploy himself. But I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. Correctly or incorrectly, I think Gellman is widely perceived to be adversarial within the system, and this is something the system is willing to accept even if the reporter in question does the kind of superb journalism Gellman does. But Greenwald, again correctly or incorrectly, is widely perceived to be adversarial to that system. And for the system itself, that kind of adversity is an unpardonable sin.

Well, I’m a novelist, so I can’t help speculating about the psychological causes of aberrant human behavior. But in the end, what causes journalists to get so personally worked up about Greenwald that they seem to forget they’re journalists at all mostly matters only if it can help the individuals in question get a grip on themselves and access the better angels of their natures.

Regardless of what’s causing it, it’s very difficult for me to understand how someone can both self-identify as a journalist, on the one hand, and also overlook or even support a fellow journalist’s call for investigative journalism to be a "decision [that] must ultimately be made by the government” and for journalists to be “locked up,” on the other. I wish there were a way to get the people in question to understand what they’ve revealed to be their true priorities. Because when someone widely understood to be a fellow journalist calls for prior restraint and imprisonment of journalists, and your primary reaction is something along the lines of, “Yeah! Stick it to that jerk I don’t like!”, you really might want to pause to ask yourself a few honest questions. Such as:

Does such a reaction seem normal to you? Desirable? Psychologically sound? Minimally mature? Do you find such behavior admirable when you see it in someone else, in other contexts? Is it something you think should be widely emulated?

Most fundamentally, how did you get to the point where you came to care more about journalists attacking someone you dislike than you do about journalists protecting the First Amendment?

Probably at least some of the people discussed in this piece, Kinsley chief among them, are too far gone to achieve any meaningful insight. But I hope some of the others I mention will grapple with some of these questions, and find a way to focus a little less on personalities, and a little more on the importance of a free press.

Editors's note: Glenn Greenwald is a board member of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Barry Eisler is a best-selling thriller author who spent three years in a covert position at the CIA Directorate of Operations. You can read more about his work at his website.