With Edward Snowden becoming a leading candidate for Time magazine’s Person of the Year, it is important to remember that he is the central character in not one but three distinct stories: 1) the story of what his disclosures tell us about the US government’s surveillance system, 2) the story of what the treatment of him and the reporters publicizing his disclosures says about attitudes toward whistleblowing and First Amendment protections, and 3) the story of the rapidly changing power dynamics in the age of digital media.
The first two stories have been fairly well covered. From the first story, we now know that America’s “collect it all” government is vacuuming up massive amounts of data and surveilling millions of people in real time — all in a way that regularly violates the law. We also know from the first story that top government officials lied to Congress and that those officials have provided no evidence proving their surveillance programs have thwarted terrorist attacks.
From the second story, we know that the government’s move to punish Snowden exposes a blatant double standard about leaks and represents another front in an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. We also know from that second story that the Obama administration is waging a similarly unprecedented war on journalism.
Far less examined, though, is the third story about what all this exposes about the revolution happening inside the Fourth Estate. This little-discussed story is most easy to see in the differing reactions to the two print reporters with whom Snowden chose to work — Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman.
A tale of two journalists
Over the last few months, both journalists have been breaking big news from the tranche of NSA documents Snowden obtained — Greenwald for many venues, Gellman for the Washington Post. Yet, among the two, only Greenwald has been subjected to treatment typically reserved for society’s worst criminals.
Only Greenwald has seen his basic legitimacy as a journalist challenged. For example, the New York Times headline writers tried to marginalize him as a “blogger” — and not a real reporter. Similarly, famed non-journalist Larry King tried to read Greenwald out of the journalism club. His legitimacy has even been challenged by the likes of Steve Rattner — a bottom-feeder whose ability to retain a permanent television platform despite his corporate scandals make him the journalism world’s poster-boy for a lack of legitimacy and credibility.
Perhaps most revealing of all, only Greenwald has been portrayed as a greedy profiteer for the supposed crime of being paid by news organizations to do his job as a freelance reporter. This, despite the fact that a) every professional full-time reporter is (or at least should be) paid for their work, b) the news business is fundamentally the business of monetizing scoops, and c) both Gellman’s Washington Post and Greenwald’s various partner news organizations (not to mention all the other media outlets covering the stories) all ostensibly profited off the traffic generated from the Snowden scoops.
So what explains the difference in reaction to Gellman and Greenwald? More specifically, what explains the especially noxious vitriol aimed at the latter? No doubt, at least some of it has to do with Greenwald’s pugnacious writing style. Lots of us find that style refreshing, but it violates the political class’s effete rules of etiquette. That has made Greenwald plenty of enemies over the years — and now those enemies are looking for some revenge.
Additionally, some of the difference probably has to do with Greenwald’s willingness to openly acknowledge his political point of view. This makes him far more honest and transparent than many news organizations and reporters who hide their agendas behind a public banner of objectivity. But it also makes Greenwald a threat to those organizations and reporters’ brand. In marketing terms, their unique selling proposition to news consumers is the idea that alleged objectivity is synonymous with credibility — and not merely deceptive camouflage for the theology of power worship. Implicit in their marketing pitch is the notion that anyone who rejects objectivity propaganda cannot be trusted, because they are supposedly “activists” and not journalists. Hence, a media industry jealously protecting its brand is far more reflexively hostile to the opinionated Greenwald than to Gellman, who at the Post must still package his reporting in the old objectivity voice.
Greenwald also gets rougher treatment than Gellman because of general in-group bias. You can call it cliqueishness, gated community decorum, country club rules, or just raw tribalism, but that bias is the same: Even though both the insider and the outsider may be doing exactly the same thing, the American establishment treats the in-group member with reverence and respect, while attacking the outsider for daring to be on the outside. Gellman is on the inside, because he is publishing through one of the ultimate symbols of political insiderism, the Washington Post. Greenwald is perceived to be on the outside, because he comes out of the world of independent non-corporate media; he has worked with more independent-minded news organizations like The Guardian America; and he has broken stories with foreign news organizations that America’s establishment media snobs often see as unimportant and/or beneath them.
All of these factors explain a lot — but on top of it all is one other big difference between these two journalists: Greenwald is publishing his reporting in multiple venues. In doing that, he is exploiting the fact that in the digital age, information’s relevance, salience, and significance is today less contingent on its particular medium and more defined by its actual content. Put another way, he is taking advantage of a Web-centric, social-media-dependent, email-connected world in which every article is just another link. The rise of that new world means that if a reporter like Greenwald, a documentarian like Laura Poitras, or any other journalist digs up news that is significant, it now has a chance to reach a huge audience, whether or not it happens to be transmitted by the old media oligopolies.
That reality, of course, is an enormous change — and a frightening one to those old media oligopolies and the governments those oligopolies too often serve.
An affront to the news cartel
Think about it: As recently as a few years ago, a scoop’s newsworthiness was often defined simply by whether it was originally broken by, say, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. If it was, it was sure to be treated as Very Important™ by Permament Washington and the so-called Gang of 500 — and it would subsequently be promoted as huge news throughout the country. But if the same scoop was broken by an independent journalist on a website or in a foreign newspaper, there was a good chance Permanent Washington and the Gang of 500 would ignore it — and that therefore it would disappear into the ether.
For most of the 20th century, this gatekeeping power was real and concrete, because, after all, only a handful of outlets had the physical distribution infrastructure to guarantee a wide audience for a story. It was, in effect, a news cartel. And even as the dialup 1990s became the broadband 2000s, this news cartel’s gatekeeping power persisted in a virtual and perceptual sense, because the oligopolies’ legacy brands were still strong from decades of dominating the old broadsheet and broadcast businesses. Sure, upstarts like the Drudge Report certainly began chipping away at the oligopoly, but until only a few years ago, the old gatekeepers’ former supremacy perpetuated their continued status as a primary arbiter of newsworthiness.
As a labor-management equation, all of this colluded to give the oligopolies’ owners enormous leverage over content producers. Simply put, because information’s newsworthiness and reach was disproportionately based on the perceived significance of its publisher, any journalist hoping for his big scoop to reach the audience it deserved was nonetheless at the mercy of the oligopolies’ shortcomings and agendas. In hypothetical Watergate terms, if for ideological reasons, the oligopoly didn’t want to mess with Richard Nixon, Woodward and Bernstein would have had few alternative routes to breaking their blockbuster story in such a powerful way.
This system was pretty terrible in lots of ways. For instance, because oligopolies’ readership and profits were specifically a product of oligopolies’ gatekeeping status (aka people read them, because they felt they could only get the big news from them), the audience and profits were guaranteed almost irrespective of whether the content the old media conglomerates published was actually the most newsworthy out there. Competition might have been the antidote to this trend — but because the infrastructural costs of entry into the then-dominant media market (delivery of newspapers, creating a TV network with local affiliates, etc.) was prohibitively high enough to not merely prevent the rise of real competition — but actually encourage anti-competitive consolidation.
At the same time as all of this was happening, oligopolies’ hidden agendas meant that major scoops were withheld in ideological deference to the very government officials those oligopolies claimed to be objectively covering. Ultimately, it all created an anti-meritocratic dynamic in journalism that probably hurt news quality in ways we will never fully know (how many Watergates were never reported?).
But, then, as terrible as this system was for stuff like democracy and the free flow of information, it was terrific for the oligopolies, for oligopoly-loving careerists, and for the government.
Gatekeeper status guaranteed the big media owners huge readership and attendant profits, and it guaranteed that their star reporters and columnists retained platform, credibility and agency — whether or not those stars actually produced the best (or even decent) journalism. Meanwhile, though the government never could fully control all information (Watergate a case in point), it could realistically hope to suppress a lot of information simply by either pressuring a handful of editors at the oligopolies, or by trying to obtain a court order to stop one of the oligopolies from publishing a scoop (and if it didn’t fully win in court, the proceedings could at least help further erode journalists’ rights). In other words, government officials only had to worry about a small, finite and compliant group of news outlets, because in general, those were typically the only ones that mattered.
For obvious reasons, this teetering power structure remains sacrosanct to everyone in media and government that it still so loyally serves. It has quite literally made billionaires out of legacy media owners, millionaires out of the laziest pundits, hundred-thousandaires out of the oligopoly’s careerist correspondents who never even try to break real news — all while helping reduce the flow of information and, by extension, protecting the most powerful government officials from public scrutiny. Not surprisingly, all of these players have a vested political and financial interest in protecting this system.
Thus, when from outside the oligopoly, a swashbuckling muckraker like Greenwald drops huge stories in multiple outlets, and those stories keep going global without the involvement of the gatekeeping oligopoly, these players go apeshit on him. They see him not merely as an intrepid journalist, but even more as a kind of Teddy Roosevelt-esque trust-buster representing the end of oligopoly and the beginning of a new reality. And that scares the crap out of the old order.
In this new reality, ancient sclerotic news organizations that were fat and happy in the old oligopolistic system will no longer get to retain relevance, audience share, and profits by sole virtue of their masthead. With the Internet allowing anyone like Greenwald to publish anything at anytime from anywhere, and with news consumers now getting so much of their news online, the infrastructural and capital costs that once protected the oligopolists from competition are now a liability for them because those expenses are no longer a necessary cost of entry into the media market. That means the oligopolists will actually have to compete with the Greenwalds rather than just ignoring them — and that means some of them will probably lose to the Greenwalds and the upstart media organizations that employ them.
In this new reality, reporters that glided by on their publications’ brand recognition and all the TV bookings that come with it may actually have to do real work — yes, they will actually have to innovate and produce compelling content if they hope to compete with a generation of Greenwalds and retain their long-term employability.
In this new reality, the independent adversarial journalist like Greenwald who digs up genuine scoops finally has a chance to become more important than what the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Media rightly calls the “state-identified journalist” who simply transcribes the claims of the rich and powerful.
In this new reality, all kinds of content producers in all different kinds of media — whether Greenwald, Glenn Beck, Katie Couric, Nate Silver or anyone else with a loyal audience — can have greater negotiating power over media owners, because in the digital age, those producers need any single one of those middlemen owners far less for audience share and exposure than they ever have. This is less disempowered freelancing and more digital-age free agency for content producers — with all the connotations about empowerment that the term “agency” comes with. Media owners and corporate media shareholders no doubt hate the thought of that just as much as they hate the thought of unions and workers having serious bargaining power.
In this new reality, governments have far less power to stop the release of humiliating information by, say, drilling holes in the hard drives of one particular media outlet. There are now so many different channels to release information — and information can now go viral no matter where it appears — that such heavy handed tactics seem less like dystopian sci-fi than absurdist comedy. That clearly pisses off — and scares — the keepers of secrets in the White House, the NSA and the GCHQ.
For all his great reporting, Gellman doesn’t represent this new reality — his ties to the Post mean he is just a (terrific) journalist who happened to get the oligopoly to uncharacteristically publish an adversarial and important story. By contrast, because his multi-outlet publishing model so singularly embodies a whole new power structure, Greenwald is neither ignored nor looked at as a mere annoyance. Pundits who are relevant only because of their connection to the oligopolies slam him. Older reporters who never had the chance to exploit a multi-outlet model snipe at him. Government officials frightened by the prospect of a future legion of Greenwalds attack him. In sum, he is treated by the oligopoly, the government, and Permanent Washington as an existential threat who must be terminated with extreme prejudice.
Fact-based questions vs. a crusade of self-interest
Of course, none of this means Greenwald (or anyone else, for that matter) is above basic scrutiny. Questions, for instance, about exactly how he goes about publishing the documents Snowden gave him are certainly fair (as an aside, I have a different take than my Pando colleague Mark Ames’ on the notion that Greenwald privatized the documents: I think it’s more accurate to say tech companies privatized Americans’ personal data, the NSA illegally appropriated that data — and now Greenwald is publicizing the whole sordid affair and being remunerated for that reporting work, as any journalist should be).
It is also fair to raise fact-based questions and conduct adversarial reporting about Greenwald’s new media venture. After all, while content producers certainly have more potential power in their relationships with 21st Century Citizen Kanes, those owners are hardly powerless. For that reason, the more information published about all the moguls investing in media, the better. Indeed, as Greenwald himself recently wrote: “Being skeptical and asking questions about any new media organization is completely appropriate. I’m sure I’d be doing the same thing of other new organizations.”
That said, as someone whose multi-outlet success proves that content producers in the digital age can now have some modicum of leverage over individual media investors/owners, Greenwald’s assertion that he and his team will have editorial independence should be taken seriously. It shouldn’t be trusted without verification — but it shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed either.
At the same time, it is important to distinguish between fact-based questions and the media and political establishment’s desperate campaign to destroy a perceived threat. With DC mounting such a campaign against Greenwald — and barely criticizing Gellman for reporting some of the same information — that campaign is clearly motivated by more than the substance of the NSA disclosures itself. It is intensifying because Greenwald dared to not only break serious news but also break it wholly outside the purview of that establishment. That smear campaign (again, as distinct from earnest questions and honest scrutiny) is a crusade in defense of media and governmental oligopoly — one that is an affront not just to that one journalist, but to every journalist.
It is, in short, an effort by those reliant on an old power structure and outdated media business models to selfishly maintain that structure and those models — journalism, facts, and democracy be damned.