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Glenn Greenwald and the Value of Journalism

Anas' extraordinary work has me thinking about a debate in America that has acquired new meaning since Glenn Greenwald and others first started reporting in June on the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Is "advocacy" journalism really journalism?
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas' extraordinary courage and resourcefulness are worthy of our highest praise and admiration. At great personal risk, he has shone a spotlight on official and private corruption and malfeasance in Ghana. In so doing, he has served a vital public good by striking a blow for accountability against otherwise unaccountable leaders.

While the context within which journalism takes place is vastly different in Ghana than in the United States, Anas' extraordinary work has me thinking about a debate in America that has acquired new meaning since Glenn Greenwald and others first started reporting in June on the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. From the very beginning of that ongoing story, an important question has come up over and over again: Is "advocacy" journalism really journalism? In its ugliest forms, this has manifested itself in suggestions from among his own putative professional fraternity that Greenwald be arrested, including from the the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin (who later apologized), and Meet the Press's David Gregory.

Of course, the question raised here goes well beyond Greenwald. And in one sense, the answer to the question is fairly straightforward: as Matt Taibbi put it, "All journalism is advocacy journalism," insofar as all journalists have some angle, point of view or concern about which they are most interested in informing the public. As media critics have pointed out for as long as there has been a news media, news organizations, by the mere exercise of discretion over what is newsworthy, what is "fit to print," are making fundamental value judgments about what is and isn't important for the public to know. In a word: advocacy. And our most iconic examples of great journalism, including Woodward and Bernstein, involved relentless crusading in pursuit of a story that they and the Washington Post clearly deemed to be of vital public interest. Yes, Greenwald expresses more explicitly his viewpoint on the issues about which he reports. But implicit in all reportorial and editorial judgment are arguments about what the news outlet wants the public to know.

Furthermore, whether one is labeled an "advocacy journalist," typically meant as an epithet in elite media circles, depends not on whether you have a point of view, or express opinions. Rather, the label affixes to those who express certain kinds of opinions or do so from certain kinds of perches.

David Sirota has pointed out that when NBC's Chuck Todd demanded to know what Greenwald's role was in the "plot" to disclose the Snowden information, he did not ask the same questions of reporters at respected institutions of journalism, like the Washington Post, the Associated Press or Bloomberg News. And of course, national security journalists at NBC and elsewhere routinely depend on leaks that may be of an illegal nature to do their jobs, without folks like Chuck Todd acting like would-be-prosecutors. In other words, institutional affiliation is crucial in distinguishing the "objective" journalist from the "blogger," "advocate" or whatever. The content of the reporting also shapes perceptions about the advocacy/non-advocacy distinction. Reporting that puts the national security state, or American armed forces in a bad light, is likely to be tarred with the advocacy brush. Tom Friedman's sickening "suck on this" justification for the Iraq war sounds a lot like advocacy to me (perhaps cheerleading is a better word). But Friedman has the right pedigree and was articulating a broadly system-supporting view. So the bloodlust largely got a pass (except from the cranks in the alternative and "advocacy" media).

So, rather than argue about what is and isn't advocacy journalism, we should perhaps ask a more fundamental question: What journalists are doing valuable work? To answer this question, maybe we could come up with something like an Anas test. The test would be: have we learned anything from the journalist, that we might not otherwise know, that has clear value in holding leaders publicly accountable? This needn't be the only criterion by which we judge a journalist, but it certainly seems like an important one. By this test, Greenwald's, Laura Poitras' and Barton Gellman's reporting on the NSA and Jeremy Scahill's work on contractor abuse in Iraq, for example, have clear journalistic value.

By that same test, the David Gregory's of the world would appear to fare much less well. Indeed, the cult of objectivity of which they and many members of the gatekeeper media belong, tend to disdain journalism that would pass the Anas test (though to a man and woman, they would undoubtedly say they were inspired by the work of Woodward and Bernstein). Too many elite journalists today value access for its own sake. They also prize glibness and fealty to a certain notion of civility that, among other things, requires a default respect for people in positions of authority and an almost worshipful attitude about high office and the military. And even when gatekeeper media find stories like the NSA disclosures newsworthy, often it is for their personally sensational aspects, rather than its value in ensuring accountability.

It's easy, when gazing upon obvious corruption and abuse in faraway lands to identify a great and worthy journalist when we see one. In the American context, however, an odd reality has emerged. Much of the mainstream media has assumed for itself the role of, first and foremost, policing proper decorum in public debates rather than asking more fundamental questions like -- what does the public need to know to better ensure that our leaders are accountable to us, as they're supposed to be? The Anas test would be one useful way to shed light on whether that self-anointed role qualifies as valuable journalism.

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