If you had to choose between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald as your arbiter of all the news that’s fit to squabble over, whom would you pick?
In one corner, we have Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times and now an op-ed writer for the paper, who believes that reporters should strive for impartiality and bemoans the encroachment of opinion into news reports. He holds that position, apparently, despite reports that Times media reporter David Carr and media editor Bruce Headlam once staged an intervention with the former editor to explain that his opinion columns hindered their work.
In the other, we have Greenwald, whose reports, particularly on the NSA scoops on which he has built much of his reputation, are so imbued with opinion that they verge on activism. Greenwald is unapologetic about including his point of view in his reporting and thinks more reporters should do the same.
In a written exchange with Greenwald published in the New York Times’ opinion section yesterday, Keller made the case that journalists have to set aside their opinions in pursuit of the bare facts. Keller argued that reporters should let readers draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.
Greenwald, a frequent critic of Keller and the New York Times, struck back by saying such attempts at impartiality mean reporters are vulnerable to being manipulated by malign influences who know how to work the system. “A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful ‘here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts’ formulation,” Greenwald said.
This is an old argument, but in today’s media landscape, it comes with a new spin. The exchange between Keller and Greenwald, published in the Times’ op-ed section, carries the headline “Is Glenn Greenwald the future of news?” The temptation is to say yes, and not only because he is starting a new publication with a billionaire financier.
An argument for the “reveal your biases” side should point out that, thanks to social media, and especially Twitter, reporters’ opinions are increasingly difficult to hide. In fact, on Twitter, people are encouraged to express opinions by a populace that rewards them with faves, retweets, and replies – all of which contribute to a growing follower count, which in turn can be roughly translated into influence, or at least an ability to have one’s voice immediately heard by a large group of people who might otherwise not have read a particular news story presented under the author’s by-line.
Having a voice on Twitter is important to many reporters, because it is such a powerful distribution channel for their stories. It’s not just a case of fostering a “personal brand” through social media – although that, too, is important these days. It’s also cultivaving a following so that your reporting, and voice, can have larger reach, even if that means slapping a meaningless “Views expressed are personal and not those of my employer” disclaimer on your bio.
A particularly effective way to cultivate that following is to have no pretenses to impartiality. Opinions, and the articulate expression thereof, play well on Twitter, and are even sought out. That’s part of the reason we have in recent years seen the rise of independent personal “brands” in journalism, such as Nate Silver, Felix Salmon, Jenna Wortham, and Heidi Moore. Moore’s Twitter bio presents a particularly apt description of the era: “US finance and econ editor @GuardianUS. Finance, photos, occasional misgivings.”
The Twitter age, in which reporters can simultaneously be opinionators, presents a complex journalistic dynamic. In the context of the “everyone has an opinion and a soapbox” era, you can make a strong argument for the case that Glenn Greenwald, who has 286,000 followers and is highly opinionated, is increasingly going to become the journalistic norm, rather than the exception. But that would ignore the important role served by “straight news,” which at least attempts impartiality, even if such a goal proves ultimately impossible.
Greenwald is right to suggest the “voice of God” approach is necessarily imbued with its own unspoken biases, be they nationalistic, ethnocentric, or whatever else. But that does not diminish the importance of reports that set out to capture the nuances of particular issues without varnishing them with one person’s interpretation. There is a difference between the “first draft of history” and the “first critical review of history.” Both serve important roles in the system of news gathering and debate that currently presides over our daily lives and should prevail in the future.
We should seek out both the Keller and Greenwald approaches. There is a sense of authority in the idea that a reporter should say, “My opinion doesn’t matter in the conveying of the facts of this story,” and that stretches from reporting the NSA leaks to covering the neighborhood house fire. At the same time, there is a strong need for informed, expert opinion analyzing those news reports. And in those cases, the Greenwald voice, with its declared biases, is an important one.
But there is news, and there is analysis. A strong voice serves the public well in the latter but distracts in the former. One should not be confused for the other, nor should the two be conflated. That distinction is even more crucial in a time when social media – and in which everyone has a platform – is so adept at blurring it.
A future of news in which all reporters were like Glenn Greenwald might be invigorating, but it would not ultimately be helpful. The media conversation today is already noisy with opinion and declared biases. We get that on Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio, on blogs, on Twitter, and in partisan newspapers. Today, in fact, the greater challenge is finding news coverage in which the reporters take themselves out of the stories and let the facts speak for themselves. This is a style of reporting worth defending, because it is the style most at risk in the new-media age. The temptation, and the market rewards, from opinionated news coverage are too alluring for many organizations to resist. Being a boring reporter with no personal brand is unappealing to a new generation of journalists used to making themselves heard on Twitter, and it’s a difficult product to sell.
Society benefits from enlivened and informed debate. But that debate has to be built on work in which the storytellers at least make an attempt to put their own personalities on the sidelines. Regardless of new publishing platforms and media delivery mechanisms, that is a dynamic that we can’t afford to change. Facts need context, but not immediate spin. We need the boring “impartial” reports as much as we need Glenn Greenwald.
[Photo by Gage Skidmore]