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Some further thoughts on Glenn Greenwald

One does not criticise Glenn Greenwald, one of journalism’s true heroes, and not expect to create a mini-firestorm, at least in my own little corner of the blogosphere. So the criticism that rapidly followed my post last night was not unexpected. I want to address the two types of criticism levelled at me to better explain my own position, which has been misunderstood by some – and possibly, if I have read his initial reaction correctly,  by Greenwald himself.

The first criticism is easy to dismiss. Some have stated that they are on Greenwald’s “side”, thereby suggesting that I am not. Greenwald is under constant fire from the right; and he rightly receives wild acclamation on the left. Do critics really think I am with Fox News on the subject of whether Greenwald is a force for good?

But at the same time I can imagine it is very easy in these circumstances of extreme and conflicting reactions to one’s work to lose one’s bearings a little. My post was meant as a nudge to Greenwald in an area where I think his perspective is most susceptible to becoming skewed by his own exceptional experiences.

The second criticism is that I have misrepresented or exaggerated Greenwald’s arguments. I don’t think I have, and I will use an analogy to help clarify my position.

Noam Chomsky has not only explained the structural constraints inherent in the corporate media, he has made parallel criticisms of academia. It is also well known that Chomsky is something of an intellectual mentor to Norman Finkelstein, a man whose academic career was destroyed in the US by his “independent” positions on Israel and Zionism.

Now imagine that one day Chomsky gives an interview in which he argues that there are “lots of people” (academics) who could have successful academic careers while vocally criticising Israel. Not only that, but that it is their responsibility to “insulate themselves” against the pressures. That they should not “succumb” to being “ostracized a little” and “instead fight for independence”. That they should carry on “without regard for what anyone, including those in your [academic institution], think about it”. That it is up to independent academics to “figure out ways” to make their careers a success. Would Finkelstein have seen that as an act of solidarity on Chomsky’s part, or a betrayal?

It is important to note that I am not dismissing the general points Greenwald is making in relation to the new journalism. There are doubtless ways that journalists can try to use the new media to make more successful careers. There are doubtless new opportunities being created – not least, we should hope, Greenwald’s new venture with Pierre Omidyar.

But still, Greenwald’s statements of the kind I reference above need context, context about what independent journalists are up against in the corporate media. And while Greenwald acknowledges that there are problems, at the same time he tries to minimise those problems. In fact, he manages to make it sound as though independent journalists who fail either to get absolute independence written into their contracts with a corporate outfit, as he did, or to find rich pickings in the new media platforms, as he has done with Omidyar, can blame nothing but their own inadequacies. That is simply insulting.

While Greenwald strips out the proper context – structural bias – for understanding the problems faced by radical journalists, Chomsky is careful precisely to include context when talking about academia.

What Chomsky has done in the past when referring to the Finkelstein case is point out that Finkelstein’s mistake was to speak out independently when he lacked tenure. I think Edward Said once made the same point when someone told him he was courageous. He observed that it was much easier to wait till one had tenure to be intellectually brave.

Chomsky’s point about tenure isn’t meant by him as criticism of “failed” academics like Finkelstein. It’s an explanation of the institutional constraints designed to prevent people like Finkelstein from existing in academia. The long tenure process is intended to weed out radicals like Finkelstein. And those who might have early radical tendencies often have to spend so long keeping them well hidden, or more likely suppressing them, that by the time they win tenure it may be no longer intellectually tenable for them to revert to the secret positions of their academic youth.

In short, Chomsky’s positions are in solidarity with Finkelstein’s predicament, as they should be.

What’s so disappointing about Greenwald’s interview is that in this instance (please note the emphasis) he shows little solidarity with other independent journalists. Instead of providing context – observing that his own experiences are exceptional – he tries to generalise from his exceptional experience. That is what I find so misleading – in fact, dangerously misleading – about the interview.

What he does is point to his own personal experiences and imply very strongly that “lots of people” could do the same. That’s preposterous. Greenwald’s experiences in journalism are the result of his exceptional talents, his exceptional honesty, his exceptional bravery and his exceptional good fortune (even if we sometimes create our own luck). For 99% of radical journalists, there is no hope of doing what Greenwald has done, and to suggest otherwise is deeply unfair, both to his fellow journalists and to readers. It is the equivalent, as I point out above, of Chomsky or Said citing their own radicalism and success but not noting the advantages they had of tenure.

What we can hope is that Greenwald may now have a unique opportunity to dent the corporate media system, even if it is through the unlikely figure of Omidyar. I wish him every good fortune in that task. If he creates a real alternative to the corporate media model, then he will have done a real and lasting service not only to his own independent journalism but to that of many others.


Glenn Greenwald responded to my two posts criticising him.

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